Thursday, December 30, 2010

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

When I saw my first Red-Bellied woodpecker I couldn't understand why it wasn't called the Red-headed woodpecker. Certainly, the first thing you notice is that it has bold red colouration running across the crown and down to the nape of the neck. What you almost certainly do not notice is a red belly. Now, I'll grant you, the fact that there is another, more deserving, bird already called the Red-Headed Woodpecker is a decent reason for not using that name, but Red-Bellied? Really? I was told that if I looked really carefully there was a faint red wash on the belly but it's hard to see. Damn, right it's hard to see. It doesn't help that woodpeckers are normally belly to a tree-trunk when you are observing them, but even if you open up a guide book and you probably won't see much sign of a red belly there either. It is subtle and easily missed, even in most illustrations.

Things like this irk me. So I was delighted when a male Red-Bellied obligingly flashed its red-stained underparts at me just recently. So delighted that I was even prepared to share this shitty photo taken through my filthy patio door. It might seem like a trivial point but having my curiosity piqued about features like this is often the first step to appreciating the finer details of a birds plumage or behaviour, or of the variation found in these features. It is certainly true, that I am far more likely to notice the red belly than I would have otherwise.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Here is another photograph of the same bird showing the characteristic black and white speckling on the wings and mantle. The red wash on the belly can been seen faintly but also note that the red on the head extends from the nape all the way forward to the bill which tells us this is a male bird. You can also see that the distinctive stiff tail feathers (or rectrices), a characteristic adaptation to trunk foraging shared with all woodpeckers, are being using to support the bird even in this perched position.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Male)
The next photo illustrates the female of the species. The poor dears have a slightly unfortunate looking grey patch breaking up the band of red on the head. It always reminds me of a Monk's tonsure. Still, I'm sure it's attractive enough to a male Red-Bellied Woodpecker, and at the end of the day, that's all that counts. You can see a hint of red/pink on the belly here, fainter than that typically seen on a male. The most specialised body part, and therefore the best clue to their lifestyle, is invariably the bill. The robust bill of the Red-Bellied leaves no doubt as to its role, this bill is a power tool, used like a chisel to drill into bark or probe cracks and fissures as they explore the trunks of trees looking for grubs and other insects. 

Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Female)


  1. I sure can relate to your experience, I too wondered why call a red headed woodpecker red bellied?... until the first time I saw that beautiful belly! Enjoyed this post.

  2. Thanks Debbie! A Red-headed Woodpecker at my feeder would be a delightful conclusion to this story. I can hope ...