GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Two facts generally are known about the red-bellied woodpecker.
One is that its belly is not red. This is undeniable; you can see it with your eyes.
The other is that its range is the southeastern United States. The range maps all suggest this.
This isn’t the only southeastern species that has moved into our area in the last 20 years or so. The cardinal is another notable example. A number of wading birds more often associated with the South also have become regular here.
What’s going on?
In the case of the red-bellied woodpecker, the answer probably is related to habitat. The Midwest and Northern Plains have become more congenial to red-bellied woodpeckers, which prefer mature forests with fairly open habitats — the kind provided by suburbs with maturing hardwood trees or by rural farmyards and shelterbelts.
Other factors may be involved; some scientists have suggested global warming, others the increased popularity of backyard bird feeding.
The red-bellied woodpecker, unlike its fellows in the woodpecker tribe, is more of a forager than a hunter. It doesn’t often dig bugs out of tree bark, for example; instead, it takes a range of seeds and fruits, supplemented with insects.
So, the red-bellied woodpecker is a fairly frequent visitor to backyards, and increasingly backyards in our area.
This is an easily recognized bird. The back of the head is bright orange-red, and the back is striped in black and white. Often, I’ve heard people refer to this pattern as a ladder, but it’s wrong to refer to red-bellied woodpeckers as ladder-backed woodpeckers. That common name applies to another species.
The chest and belly of the bird are largely gray or tan, sometimes with an orange blush. “The actual ‘red belly’ is limited to a small portion of the ventral region between the tarsi and is difficult to observe in the field.” So says the monograph on the species in “The Birds of North America.”
Translated, this means if you want to see the red, you have to look between the birds’ legs, and your chances of seeing it are best if you’re holding the bird.
The red-bellied woodpecker brings the total of winter woodpecker species in our area to four, with a couple of others that sometimes linger into the winter.
The most obvious of winter woodpeckers is the pileated, a crow-sized bird with white patches in its wings. These are conspicuous when the bird flies. The pileated woodpecker also has a red crest and a face boldly marked in black and white. While pileated woodpeckers are big and unmistakable, they are not common.
Probably the most common of the winter woodpeckers here falls at the opposite end of the size range. This is the downy woodpecker, which is just a bit larger than a house sparrow, though rather more streamlined.
The hairy woodpecker would be a competitor for abundance, and in some neighborhoods it may be more numerous. It approaches robin size.
These two species are very similar. Both species are black on wings and back, white on breast and belly, and have strikes of red on the back of the head — the back, not the top.
Size is determinative, of course, but often not dependable.
Better is the size of the bill. This appears smaller and more delicate in the downy woodpecker; in the hairy, it resembles a carpenter’s wood punch.
There is one difference in plumage. At close range and with keen observation, you might notice black striping on the white outer tail feathers of the downy woodpecker. The hairy doesn’t have these.
Both species show up at backyard feeders, where they relish suet. I think there is a bit of difference in their habitat preference; you’re not likely to encounter either a hairy woodpecker in a cornfield or a downy woodpecker in an old growth forest. Downy prefers smaller branches; hairy larger ones.
Two woodpecker stragglers occur here in some winters: the aptly named red-headed woodpecker and the northern flicker. Of these, the flicker is more frequent in winter, I think, but I’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers as late as Christmas week.
Not too much farther east, you might encounter three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers, both denizens of evergreen woods.
Finally, I should mention Lewis’ woodpecker, a vagrant. There aren’t any local records but a couple of winters ago, a single male spent most of the winter in Lake of the Woods County in northwestern Minnesota. It created quite a stir, providing a lifer for many area birders.