Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This beautiful bird is a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). They are medium sized woodpeckers that can be found throughout most of the eastern United States and Southern Canada. They breed in the northeastern United States and parts of southern Canada, although they are found as far south as Florida.

The name red-bellied is a bit of a misnomer, as they do not have a red belly at all, in fact their belly is more of a buff color with a slight tinge of pink that is well hidden and difficult to see. Their head and body is light gray and their back and wing feathers are black and white in a Ladder-like pattern. Like all woodpeckers they have two toes on the front and two toes on the back of each foot which allows them to grip the trees they climb around on. Males have red on their head that extends from the nape of the neck to the bill. The female has less red. The one pictured here is a female. Their bodies measure 9 to 10 inches in length with a wingspan up to 18 inches.

Woodpeckers mainly eat insects that they find in the cracks of tree trunks or by drilling their beak into the bark of trees and removing bugs hiding there. They will also eat suet, sunflower seeds, nuts and some berries if provided. They will sometimes wedge larger nuts into the bark of trees and break it down into smaller more manageable pieces with their beak. They will also store nuts and berries in old fence posts to eat at a later date. This is a trait they share with other species of woodpeckers. A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. It could be described as similar to velcro....the tongue flicks out and sticks to whatever it is trying to capture.  Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.

Red-bellieds are loud, raucous birds that make numerous vocalizations. I often describe the song as that of a monkey yelling in the trees. So if you are out hiking and hear something that sounds like a monkey and you don't live in the tropics, chances are it is a woodpecker.

A couple of weeks ago my daughter came home to find a red-bellied woodpecker on the front porch near the door. It had flown into the window glass on the door and was stunned. I had her place it in a cardboard shoebox and put it in her bedroom in the dark. We left for about an hour and ran some errands. When we came back to check on the bird, I had her take the box outside before opening it. As soon as she took the lid off the woodpecker flew out and to the tree halfway across the yard. She seemed all recovered from her experience.

Shaylyn holding the bird right after it crashed into the window.

Beautiful back pattern 

 This woodpecker lived up to its nature by trying to peck its way out of the box it was in.

This species prefers deciduous woodlands to nest in and will use old maple, elm and other softer wood to excavate nesting holes in. They will drill smaller holes around the nesting site to discourage other woodpeckers from moving into their territory. This species is secure in their numbers, but rely heavily on deciduous forests, so those areas that are deforested will have very few to no nesting woodpeckers. They will occasionally use backyard trees to nest in, but not with any regular occurrence. Starlings are competition for these woodpeckers and more than half of all nests will be invaded by starlings. Males will seek out the nesting sites and will tap its beak to attract a female. Any females in the area that hear his tapping will come to check it out. If the female is receptive to his technique she will in turn tap softly in response. She will then help him put the finishing touches on the nest.

Occasionally you may spot a Red-bellied Woodpecker flying quickly and erratically through the forest, then it will suddenly change direction, landing for a moment and rapidly take off again keeping up a quick chatter of calls. Scientists document this odd behavior as a type of play that probably helps young birds practice the evasive movements they may one day need.resources in one area.

These birds are often preyed upon by Cooper's Hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and snakes. House cats are also a huge problem for these birds as well as other backyard birds. Other woodpeckers such as pileated woodpeckers, and red-headed woodpeckers as well as owls, and snakes will kill the nestlings.