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January 2011: Red-Bellied Woodpecker

From the Photographer

Chris Helzer/TNC 

Red-bellied woodpeckers are great birds with a confusing name.

Be honest, is that the moniker you'd come up with if you were tasked with naming the species? The bird does actually have a faint pinkish smear of color on its belly, but you've really got to look for it. Can you imagine naming the great blue heron for its yellow eyes? (Who's looking at its eyes??)

Red-bellied woodpeckers live in the eastern half of North America and are often seen at bird feeders. They nest in tree cavities, and normally choose to excavate a new nesting hole each year—even when they use the same tree they used the previous season. They are large and strong enough to steal cavities from other species now and then, but more often lose out to the even more aggressive European starlings in that kind of competition.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are well-designed for catching their food. The tongue can extend at least 2 inches from the tip of their beak, and its barbed-tip and the bird's sticky saliva help capture and extract tasty insects from tight quarters. They will also feed on nuts and other seeds, especially during the winter. Interestingly, red-bellied woodpeckers are known to occasionally store food in deep cracks in tree bark and other similar places so they can eat it later.

I photographed this woodpecker while standing near a bird feeder on a snowy day in eastern Nebraska. The snow was falling hard enough that I had to fashion a shield out of cardboard and rubber bands to keep flakes from hitting the surface of my lens.

The bird kept backing down the trunk of the tree to grab sunflower seeds that had fallen to the snow from an overhead feeder. Once it had the seed, it would hop back up the trunk to jam the seed into a crevice in the bark so it could open the shell.

The falling snow didn't seem to bother the woodpecker or other hungry birds at the feeder, but after about an hour and a half I'd gotten enough snow on my eyelashes and down my neck that I decided to retreat into the house to find my own meal.

Chris Helzer is program director for the Conservancy's Eastern Nebraska Project Office and the author of the new book The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States. His images of Nebraska prairies and their wildlife are among the most spectacular in the Conservancy's archives.

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