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Where is the Red Belly?

Where is the Red Belly?


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve MuellerW

The suet feeder attracts many bird species including the Red-bellied Woodpecker. One would expect a name to indicate a prominent feature but for this woodpecker it does not. Instead people tell me they have the uncommon Red-headed woodpeckers.

The head on the adult Red-headed Woodpecker is a distinctive feature on both sexes and they have a striking wing characteristic that cinches identification. This species’ head is completely red on front, back, sides, and top in the adult birds. The young have brown heads during their first year that gradually change to red. 

Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

The wings have large white patches on what are called the secondary feathers. This makes the lower back look white even on young birds perched on a tree. The adult’s white is pure but the young have some brown barring through the white. In flight the white on the wings flashes brightly making identification easy. 

The bright red head is not always as obvious as the white on the wings. Dim light in cloudy weather subdues the red color but the large white patches on wings remain obvious. The belly on this species is white.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

Where’s the red on the Red-bellied Woodpecker? Their breast is gray or brownish with a slight tinge of red on the lower belly near the tail. The red is barely visible and not the good feature for identification. The head pattern is more helpful. Both sexes have significant red on the back of their heads but the sides and front are gray. The male has a red cap that continues over the top of the head that is lacking in the female. 

Lack of solid color on the head helps distinguish the Red-bellied from the Red-headed. When the red color is subdued in dim light, the solid pattern verses dark and light contrast can be seen. In flight the Red-bellied has a white patch on the upper rump but it does not extend across the lower wings like it does on the Red-headed. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker wings are flecked with white spots overlaying black throughout the wing. There is a sharp division of black and white on the Red-headed’s wings with the upper back black and lower white. 

Less obvious features help with identification. The bill on the Red-bellied is dark but is silvery gray on the Red-headed. The nine species of woodpeckers in Michigan have dark upper tail feathers but some have white outer feathers. Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers outer tail feathers are white with a helpful difference for separating the two. There are black flecks on the underside across the white feathers on the Downy and the Hairy’s is pure white. When the Downy spreads its tail feathers while standing on a suet feeder or tree, some black flecking can be seen on the outer most upper tail feathers. The Hairy is larger than a Downy.

Five of the nine Michigan woodpeckers are common in our region. The approximate order from most common is Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted), and Pileated. Depending on the neighborhood habitat, that order might differ. Flickers are not frequently seen in winter and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is usually only noticed during spring and fall migrations. The crow sized Pileated is present all year where there are larger trees and they often frequent large upland forest or extensively forested lowland floodplains. 

Behavior in nature niches is important for recognizing species. With considerable practice varied calls help separate species even when not seen. Most helpful is the rhythm of head-banging on a tree, house, or sound resonating surface. Speed and loudness of woodpecker pounding helps. It also varies with the work being done. Territorial tree pounding sounds different from that of birds searching for insects hidden under tree bark. 

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely on smaller branches than Hairy Woodpeckers that choose larger branches when working. Northern Flickers and Red-bellied woodpeckers, that are about the same size, choose different habitats. Flickers are often found in open areas feeding on ants while the Red-bellied almost always feeds in forests. Michigan woodpeckers nest in hollow trees. Take notice of details to hone your observation skills.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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