Red-bellied Woodpecker

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Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Photo by: 
Rick Jordahl

One of the most “misnamed” birds of all time has to be the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Some call it the ladder-backed woodpecker, but the majority of bird enthusiasts start out calling this bird the red-headed woodpecker .

Who can really blame them? The red-bellied’s head is mostly red and it is a lot more common at feeders than its truly red-headed cousin. If you have seen a red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus ), you know that it’s head is completel y red, while the red-bellied’s is only red across the top of the head from the bill to the base of the neck. Perhaps red-naped woodpecker would be more appropriate.

Believe it or not, the bird does have a red belly. Of course this is quite hard to see on a bird that spends most of its life clinging to the side of a tree.

Woodpeckers are fascinating animals with many adaptations for their life style . Have you ever noticed their feet? Most birds have three toes facing forward and one toe that points backwards which makes for a good grip while sitting on a limb. Instead of three toes forward, woodpeckers are able to greatly vary the position of one of those three. Generally, it is oriented backwards for extra gripping power. This combined with its very stiff, kickstand-like tail enables the birds to get great leverage for hammering.

You can tell the difference between male and female red-bellieds. Like other woodpeckers, the difference is not dramatic. The red on the head of the female is broken at the crown by a patch of grey. When explaining this to a garden club once, I had the response “that makes sense, women always grey before men”. Now remember, I didn’t say that!

Red-bellieds are easily attracted to your feeders. While they like sunflower seeds and fine chips, your best bet is to use peanuts and/or suet cakes. The next time you see one, look closer and see if you can spy that secretive red belly.

By Mark McKellar

SUMMER 2003