A Red-bellied Woodpecker in Pennsylvania

Red-bellied Woodpecker
A female Red-bellied Woodpecker flies onto a branch and works along its edge. Her soft colors shined in the afternoon light.

A rolling kwirr kwirr came from my right, so I leaned forward to look out the small window in my photography blind. In one of the walnuts, oaks, or locusts would be a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but nothing popped out. A half-inch of snow lay on the ground, and the trees were naked of leaves on this December day. The ground dropped off quickly to my right and down to a narrow ravine where the small creek flowed from the spring behind me. To my left, the hill’s slope was more gradual. Patches of multiflora rose and grasses grew under the sparse canopy. I’d set up near a fallen tree whose exposed roots might make excellent perches for birds coming to the food I’d scattered.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are now the most common woodpecker on my sister’s farm, where I grew up more than fifty years ago. But they weren’t in Western Pennsylvania during my youth and into the beginning of my adulthood. Back then, several high school friends and I went to Maryland to see this species. We drove all night and camped on the Delmar Peninsula, then birded the area for species not found in our farm country.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker looked right at me even though I was hiding in a blind.

The kwirr was a little louder now; the bird was coming closer. These are medium-sized woodpeckers, bigger than the Downy and Hairy but smaller than the Pileated. In the last half-century, Red-bellies have expanded north, moving throughout Pennsylvania, into New York and Ontario, and up through much of the mid-west. Probably several things have allowed them to do this. Planting ornamental bushes and trees has provided more food, increased bird feeding in residential areas has supplemented natural foods, and climate change has helped them, too. These birds regularly feed on seeds; ornamental planting has provided winter fruits and suitable foraging surfaces for bugs. The Northern Mockingbird is another species now common near my sister’s farm that wasn’t this far north in my youth.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker turned sideways to look back into the forest.

A pale-brownish bird dashed onto the branch and hung from the backside. It had a long-pointed bill, little bits of red on its forehead and nape, black and white striped back. Definitely a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a female. She hopped forward a couple of times, moving to keep the branch between her and me as much as possible. She knew I was there. Her toes gripped the wood with long nails, two toes forward and two backward. Although she didn’t need it for bracing in this horizontal position, her stiff tail was pushed down on the branch. I am particularly fond of the soft tan colors of her chest and belly. The red is far back on their bellies and often not prominent. Males will usually have more of a red wash across their undersides. People often question why this bird isn’t named for its red head, but another woodpecker possesses that name.

She moved up the branch, picking seeds up, and then in a flash, disappeared down over the hill.

A female Red-bellied Woodpecker has a little red on the forehead and the nape and the brown-gray on the top of the head.

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