With all of the allure of a sodden newspaper, the day was cold, gray and damp, leaving me indoors and ill-tempered. It had felt like 4 p.m. all day, enervating and dull. Brits might reach for the tea and biscuits. For me, it was time to pull out the spotting scope.
At first glance, I could see a bird unceremoniously spraying millet seed out of one of the feeders. Eventually, the bird found a black oil sunflower seed in the mix and darted off to the nearby redbud. There it wedged the seed into a crevice, gave it a couple of good whacks with its bill, then gobbled down the meat within. A moment later it was off to repeat the cycle. The mourning doves below the feeder didn’t mind; they were enjoying all that spilled millet.
Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are favorites of backyard bird watchers in the eastern United States. The birds are robin-size, sport a bright red patch on their heads and necks, and are just uncommon enough to elicit a bit of excitement.
The red-bellied I was watching was a male, distinguished by the red patch reaching from the base of the bill over the head and down the nape to the back. In females, the red stripe only covers the neck and back of the head. The top of the head is gray and there is a smudge of reddish-orange atop the bill.
Instinctively, our eyes are drawn to red, but the bold black-and-white pattern that covers the back and wings of red-bellieds is compelling, too. The face and underside of the body are pale. White patches on the wings and tail are visible when the woodpecker is in flight. The red belly that gives the bird its name is often not visible. Typically, it is no more than a rosy blush.
Like other oddly named birds (I’m thinking of the ring-necked duck), the name dates from when the continent’s abundant natural resources were being studied by its European settlers. Bird specimens were typically shot and the carcass examined later in the naturalist’s home or workshop. In such a setting the bird’s red belly feathers could be examined with care and the otherwise puzzling name attached.
The red-bellied is typical of other North American woodpeckers: It is monogamous, flies in a deep undulating pattern, uses its chisel-like bill to drill wood and open seeds, and hitches vertically up trees using its stiff tail feathers for support.
Aiding the woodpecker in its life of clinging to tree trunks are its toes. Most terrestrial birds have four toes with three facing forward and one backward. In the red-bellied, two face up and two face down. The extra toe facing down gives the woodpecker extra strength and stability as it lunges up vertical surfaces.
Red-bellieds build cavities in trees to roost and nest. Nest openings are just large enough to allow the adults to enter and exit. Behind that hole the pair excavate a cylindrical cavity about 4 inches in diameter that goes down about a foot. In spite of the extensive effort required to build such a nest, red-bellieds build new ones annually.
In addition to chiseling out nests, woodpeckers use their sturdy bills to drill holes in trees to access spiders, insects and other arthropods within. The unique anatomy of woodpeckers allows the red-bellied to extend its tongue well beyond the end of its bill, about 2 extra inches. (The equivalent in a human would be about a foot beyond our lips!)
Red-bellieds eat insects much of the year. When winter arrives and insects are scarce, these woodpeckers readily turn to seeds, nuts, fruits and berries. So seeing a red-bellied in the dead of winter in my backyard wasn’t a fluke. These birds are permanent residents throughout their range, which extends from the Mississippi River Valley to the Atlantic.
The red-bellied I was watching appeared to be eating each seed it took from the feeder. Like other woodpeckers, though, it might also be caching some seeds to eat later.
In just a few more weeks, this bird would molt into its brightest colors and begin two of its noisy behaviors. In spring, red-bellieds are quite vocal as they engage in courting behavior and establish territories. Their extremely loud rolling churr fills the air. So, too, does their drumming. Both males and females drum, pecking loudly on hollow tree limbs or other surfaces with good acoustic qualities. This noisy behavior is separate from the drilling that is needed to build a nest, which is a slower paced endeavor.
As I saw another flurry of seeds being tossed about, I realized that I would soon need to replenish the feeders. And that seemed appropriate, I reflected. After all, they had done their part in warming the cold winter in my heart and awakening in me the promise of spring.