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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 2000

A red-headed woodpecker preparing to drill. © Stephen J. Lang

Welcome woodpecker

Enjoy the visit when a "red-bellied" comes knocking.

Anita Carpenter


The more retiring red-headed woodpecker is often rousted from nesting cavities by its red-bellied relatives.

© Stephen J. Lang

A robust, nine-inch woodpecker swoops onto a platform feeder. It's unannounced arrival scatters juncos, goldfinches and birdseed in all directions. Though its not overly aggressive, the hungry red-bellied woodpecker dominates the feeding station by its size alone. It swallows a share of the sunflower seeds before disappearing into a nearby wood. The smaller birds return.

Always welcome as a backyard visitor, the red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, is easy to identify. Its large size, and distinct back and wings striped like a zebra with horizontal black and white stripes are unmistakable. The barred back contrasts with a light gray to tan breast and belly. A brilliant red like "glowing sunset" marks the back of the nape over the crown to the base of the heavy black beak in males, but only appears on the back of the neck or nape in females. Both sexes peer from black beady eyes on gray cheeks. Both have white rumps and stiff black tails highlighted with barred central feathers.

During the nesting season, red-bellied woodpeckers display a reddish wash on their bellies that is not easy to see. I often wondered why the bird was named for this less-than-prominent feature until I made a March visit to Key Largo, Florida. Here I observed red-bellieds with the brightest reddish-pink breasts and bellies imaginable.

The red-bellied woodpecker flies in the typical flap-flap-glide undulating style of other woodpeckers. Several deep wingbeats carry the bird upward, then with wings closed briefly, the bird loses altitude only to recover with more wing flaps. It flies strongly and, with a final upward swoop, lands upright on a tree trunk, clinging to the bark with large strong feet propped up like a tripod by the short, stiff tail feathers. It often circles the trunk staying to the far side of a bird watcher. Every now and then the curious bird peers around to see what's happening and who's watching.

The red-bellied spends much of its time on trees. It hammers trunks and limbs searching for insects and larvae. It drums on hollow branches to proclaim its territory.

The bird nests in excavated tree cavities. For a few short weeks from May into July, the pair shares nesting responsibilities. Each takes its turn incubating a clutch of four to five white eggs for about two weeks. About 25 days after hatching, the well-fed youngsters leave the confines of the cavity home. Forty-five days after hatching, the now full-grown birds are on their own. Red-bellieds only raise one brood a year in our short summer season.

Though the red-bellied woodpecker can be secretive and unobtrusive in a thick woods, its loud "churring" calls reverberate through the trees. I have trouble separating its call from the red-headed woodpecker, but friends with perfect pitch tell me the calls are at slightly different pitches.

Every time I see a red-bellied woodpecker, I pause to take a second look because it isn't easily intimidated. This woodpecker was not very common in Wisconsin as recently as 20 years ago. The species has slowly extended its range from the south into our woodlands, becoming permanent residents in chosen neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the red-bellied competes with and often displaces the more retiring red-headed woodpecker from nesting cavities. Consequently, while red-bellied woodpecker numbers are increasing, red-headed woodpecker populations are declining. Both are interesting to watch and it's a pity we can't seem to enjoy both in equal numbers.

Anita Carpenter flits around the country and the countryside watching nature from her home base in Oshkosh.