In recent posts I have discussed the smallest and largest of the woodpeckers in the region, as well as focused a spotlight on the oddball yellow-bellied sapsucker and the medium-sized Northern flicker. This week’s post will focus on one of the most common, although ridiculously misnamed, woodpeckers, as well as one of its rather uncommon relatives.
Among the woodpecker family, the red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers are close cousins, belonging to a genus of those tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.
The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the most widespread members of this genus with a range that extends from southern Canada to northeastern Mexico, as well as the eastern United States as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. A century ago the red-bellied woodpecker was almost exclusively a southeastern bird, but it has expanded its range northward and westward considerably in the last 100 years. Its southern origins are hinted at in its scientific name of Melanerpes carolinus, which can be roughly translated as “black creeper of the Carolinas.”
It’s also named for a characteristic of its appearance that is not particularly prominent and not easy to observe. The faint tint of red that tinges the white belly feathers is extremely difficult to observe when this woodpecker is hitching up the trunk of a large tree. Because males, and females to a certain extent, have a red cap, the species has been erroneously referred to as a “red-headed woodpecker” by many casual observers. The true red-headed woodpecker, however, has an entirely red head and a plumage pattern that, considering its color trio of red, white and blue-black, is downright patriotic. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is about the same size as the red-bellied woodpecker.
All woodpeckers are noisy when the mood strikes them, but the red-headed and red-bellied have always struck me as rather more clamorous than some of their relatives. The most common call of the red-bellied woodpecker is a sort of rolling “churr” repeated frequently while the bird is on the move from tree to tree.
To enjoy close views of the red-bellied woodpecker, provide plenty of peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet cakes. If there are any of them in the woods nearby, they will find these food offerings in short order. All my research indicates the same is true of red-headed woodpeckers, but I’ve never observed this woodpecker at my home. I’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers in Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, but their populations are somewhat localized. Woodlands dominated by oak trees are often inhabited by both these woodpeckers, which are fond of the acorns produced by these trees.
One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands with an abundance of oak trees.
At feeders, red-bellied woodpeckers are prickly customers that often refuse to play nice with other birds. I’ve seen them stare down other large feeder birds, including blue jays, mourning doves and evening grosbeaks. With its large bill, the red-bellied woodpecker commands some respect.
Anyone who has hosted these birds knows they are a welcome visitor to any yard. Who knows? Some day I may even get a visit from the elusive red-headed woodpecker, which is the only woodpecker resident in the region to thus far avoid my yard.
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