One of the first questions people ask about the Red-bellied Woodpecker is, “Why isn’t it called the Red-headed Woodpecker, after all, its most prominent feature is its brilliant red cap?” Well, basically, the name was already taken by another member of the species whose head is entirely red. So, this bird lost out and had to settle for red-bellied, despite the minimal amount of red displayed on its breast.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a beautiful bird. Males and females possess similar markings, with the exception being that the red on the female does not extend all the way up over the crown of her head. Their backs sport a striking black and white pattern.
Year round residents here in Atlanta, they are frequent visitors to backyard feeders where they prefer peanuts, suet, and sunflower seeds. I have not found them to be overly aggressive, but I have seen them use their intimidating beaks to persuade a bully Blue jay to back away from the food source.
A couple of cool tidbits about Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Like other woodpeckers, they have two front toes and two back toes, which makes it easier for them to climb tree trunks. (Songbirds have three front toes and one back toe to make it easier for them to grasp branches when they are perching.) They also have sharp pointy beaks they use to poke and pry into the crevices of bark, and long sticky tongues to capture the insects they find there.
When breeding season rolls around (which is right about now), the males use their beaks to drum on dead trees, aluminum gutters, or some other surface (like the side of your house) to attract the attention of a female. He will then show her a nest cavity, and if she accepts the “proposal,” the two will work together to build a nest. When the nest is finished, they drill holes around the site to mark their territory and warn away other birds. The pair also shares the work of incubating the eggs and feeding the youngsters. Usually they only have one brood, but if they have a secure nesting and feeding area (like my backyard) they are known to produce two or three broods. I hope I can get some pictures when they start bringing their babies to the feeders…the young birds of this species look incredibly awkward!