You are here: Home » Birds » At the feeder: Red-bellied Woodpecker

At the feeder: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker by David A. Homer
Red Bellied Woodpecker by David A. Homer

I am always awake long before first light, and as I love to watch the sun rise over the lake, I usually begin my day while it is still dark.  But on the morning of December 23, I decided to linger in bed, the result of far too many pre Christmas activities I suppose.  From my prone position in bed, I am able to see one of our bird feeders at the back of the house.  On this day, with the first rays of the dim morning light, a flash of red appeared in the vicinity of the feeder.  Out of bed like a shot, wakening my wife, our two dogs and a cat in the process, I bounded to another room to fetch my camera.  I knew whatever it was, merited a photograph. Adjusting the camera for low light conditions as I returned to the bedroom, I took cover behind the draperies of the picture window. I got my first glimpse of him as I peaked from behind the drapes– a first for our property and only the second I have ever seen—a magnificent male Red-bellied woodpecker.  The males have a wonderful red head and nape, a faint wash of red on their lower belly, the back and wings are barred, black and white.  Females are similar, but the duller red on their head is limited to a smaller patch on the back of the head and nape.
Woodpecker species such as Downy, Hairy and Pileated are frequent guests in our yard, and we have played host to infrequent visits from a Red-headed woodpecker as well. However, Red- bellied woodpeckers are rather rare in our area that is why I was so excited to see him.  As with a number of other birds, they are expanding their territories slowly north.  This species has been a long-time resident of the Carolinian area of our province and their breeding territory extends southward to Florida and as far west as Texas.  The most probable reasons for this northward expansion are likely the long-term effects of climate change and the proliferation of bird feeders filled with peanuts and sunflower seeds as well as the availability of suet.
In 2012 the Carden Christmas Bird count recorded two individuals during the count.  This year Carden had three individuals.  Two individuals were recorded during the Orillia count this year.  So it seems the species is certainly putting down roots in our area.
Red-bellied woodpeckers depend on large, dead or decaying deciduous trees for their nests and for the many insects and grubs that inhabit them.  Males will select a nesting spot, and if the female agrees to it, she will drum with her bill on the tree.  That in turn will set off drumming by both birds, which will continue throughout the courtship.  Nesting takes place earlier than most other birds, with young hatched by mid-April.    Young depend on their parents for up to 10 weeks.
Thankfully, this male bird has stayed at our place, visiting feeders at both the back and front throughout the day.  One day he seems to prefer peanuts, other days, suet.  Suet seems to be the favourite offering on the coldest days.  When he flies in to a feeder, other birds scatter, even the Blue jays take cover!
The moral of this story then; it’s ok to linger in bed periodically, it may pay dividends!
Written by David A. Homer.