Since expanding its range northward, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has become a familiar visitor to our winter bird feeders. Its distinctive zebra-like black and white barred back and the strip of bright red on its head (from bill to nape on the male, nape only on the female) identifies this medium-sized woodpecker. Rural settings, as well as suburban areas that support deciduous woodlands with standing dead trees (snags), are home to our local populations. Suet is a favorite, but feeders offering shelled peanuts or sunflower seeds will also attract this lovely bird.
Woodpecker species have several interesting characteristics that allow them to successfully live their lives in the vertical world among the tree trunks. They possess zygodactyl feet; their first and fourth toes face to the rear, while their second and third toes point forward. This adaptation aids them in climbing erect surfaces, such as tree bark. Additionally, woodpecker tails are specially tailored to help support them as they climb. Their tail feathers are rigid and shaped to flex against a tree trunk as they search for food or excavate a nest hole.
Like most woodpeckers, the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s chisel shaped bill is a powerful tool used to pry and drill tree bark in search of a meal. (Its marvelous barbed and sticky tongue then extends to probe the crevices and holes for insects.) The multi-purpose bill is able to pound open the shells of nuts, as well as excavate a nest hole in a dead tree. Come springtime it will be used to drum on a resonant surface to attract a mate and proclaim a breeding territory. (Hollow tree branches are usually the instrument of choice, but don’t be surprised if you wake to a Red-bellied Woodpecker drumming on your very musical rain gutters.) While it may seem that the bird is “sharpening” its bill, this is not the case. The drumming is merely a form of communication for woodpeckers.
Several birds are known to hoard food in the fall, and the red belly is no exception. It will use its sturdy bill and long tongue to push acorns, beechnuts, seeds and berries into tree crevices. These caches of food will be retrieved in the winter months as needed. If you notice sunflower seeds tucked behind tree bark in your yard, it may be the work of an industrious red belly.