Sunday, January 13, 2008

Common Feeder Birds: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo by John Howard.

Woodpeckers are fascinating creatures with many amazing adaptations to aid in their survival. One of my personal favorites is the Red-bellied Woodpecker(Melanerpes carolinus). Melanerpes means "black creeper" in Greek, describing its movement up the side of a tree.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is about nine inches in length with a red band on the back of the neck extending to the top of the head. The female's red band reaches to the middle of the head, while the male's reaches to the bill. The Red-bellied back is barred black and white. It common name comes from a light patch of red on the belly which is not easily seen when the bird is on the side of a tree.

Female Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a highly varied diet. They will feed on insects, preferably ones found on the bark and limbs of trees. In the winter months they rely heavily on plant material, such as berries, seeds and nuts. Occasionally, they will feed on small mammals, lizards, and nestling birds.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers will cache or store nuts, berries and insects in pre-existing cracks and crevices in trees, posts and vine rootlets. They will lodge them 5-7 cm deep to hide them from other animals. It has not been reported that they will defend these food stores.

Woodpeckers, in general, have amazing adaptations that aide in their survival. Their toes are zygodactyl with two toes forward and two toes back, almost forming an "X". This configuration allows the bird to get a firm grip on the bark of the tree. They, also, have stiff tail feathers that they use somewhat like a kickstand on a bike. These feathers help steady them as they hop up the side of the tree. Their brain is cushioned by an air-filled spongy tissue that acts like bubble wrap and the skull fits tightly around the brain to reduce jarring while they hammer away.
The most incredible feature of the woodpecker is its tongue. The Red-bellied has enlarged mucous glands under its tongue that produce a sticky saliva. The tongue is pointed and barbed at the tip and extends 2.5-4 cm beyond the bill. These features make the Red-bellied more successful at extracting insects from crevices than any other woodpecker. There is an excellent article on woodpecker tongues with fantastic pictures at Hilton Pond's website.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers love suet, peanuts and will also eat bits of dried fruit and black-oil sunflower. When you have a chance, take a closer look at the Red-bellied Woodpecker and admire all its amazing traits!

1 comment:

Tom said...

Hi Janet,

Cool blog, I linked to it from J.M.'s post on the OOS trip. I believe that we have been on a few of the Ohio Heritage Naturalists outings.

Happy blogging,