Maybe it's time to rename the red-bellied woodpecker

  • The red-bellied woodpecker is 9.5 inches long. Note that the red on the top of this male bird's head comes down to the bill.

    The red-bellied woodpecker is 9.5 inches long. Note that the red on the top of this male bird's head comes down to the bill. Courtesy of Karen Lund

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted12/3/2019 6:00 AM

Some common bird names just don't make sense. Look at the woodpecker shown in the photo. Do you notice the bird's obvious red belly? Neither do I.

Yet, it is called a red-bellied woodpecker and it is the subject of this column. This woodpecker can be found across Illinois and the eastern United States. It is a medium-sized brown bird with a zebra pattern on its back and wings.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As a kid growing up in the Northwest suburbs, I never saw a red-bellied woodpecker come to our family's bird feeders. Now, these woodpeckers frequent bird feeders across the region. You might be wondering where they came from and when they moved in?

Early in the 20th century, red-bellieds were only breeding in southern Illinois.

By the middle of the century, they could be found across Illinois, but were more common in the central and southern regions. This relatively rapid northward expansion was happening across the eastern U.S.

Milder winters, maturing forests, plus their generalist foraging and nesting habits account for the species' expansion. Their diet includes fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, as well as insects such as beetles, ants and caterpillars.

They can be found in a variety of wooded locations, from upland to bottomland forests and from wilderness sites to urban settings. Not surprisingly, they will nest in dead trees but, in an interesting twist, they often excavate a nest cavity in a dead limb coming off a live tree.

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A red-bellied woodpecker holds a sunflower seed in its beak.
A red-bellied woodpecker holds a sunflower seed in its beak. - Courtesy of Karen Lund

The red-bellied woodpecker courtship process is, I hate to say it, almost romantic. Please be advised that the following description comes from a technical ornithological account: " ... the male woodpecker attempts to attract a mate to his roost cavity ... by means of kwirr calls, drumming, and relatively soft taps ..."

The account continues, "When attracted, the female flies to the male and perches beside him, joining him in nearly synchronous mutual tapping behavior…."

How can you tell a male from a female red-bellied woodpecker? Look closely at the head.

With males, the forehead, crown, and back of the neck are reddish-orange. With females, only the back of the neck is reddish. This brings us back to this bird's silly name.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yes, this bird has a small patch of pale red between its legs which is quite difficult to spot, even with the best binoculars. Centuries ago, before there were quality portable optics of any sort, the only way to get a close look at a bird was to shoot it.

Ornithologists describing newly-discovered species were looking at a dead bird on a table, not a live one flying through the forest. A feature that was name-worthy to a scientist sitting in a museum sometimes does us little good on a bird walk today.

So, I think this bird needs a new name. I'll start with a few suggestions: zebra-backed woodpecker, red-cowled woodpecker or, my personal favorite, the red-necked bark-scratcher.

Just a thought.

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. He welcomes readers' comments and questions at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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