Common names of birds can be descriptive and informative — though less so for Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
The birds do have a reddish splotch on their (mainly gray) breasts, but it is hard to see.
More noticeable, in the case of males, is a bright red head from the crown to the back of the neck. Females have red mainly on the nape. Both have a black-and-white checkered back.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of over 300 kinds of woodpeckers in the world, including 22 species in the United States. They’re found throughout much of the eastern part of the country and are common in the Southeast, in forests, parks, suburbs, and other wooded areas. The species is non-migratory except in the extreme northern parts of its range.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers spend much of their time hitching themselves up tree trunks, supported by their stiff tails. Their long, barbed tongues and sticky saliva help them capture insects and other invertebrate prey.
The birds also eat berries, acorns, pine seeds, sap, and a variety of other plant matter. Sometimes they store nuts or other items for future meals in cracks and crevices in tree bark. They can be frequent visitors to backyard feeders if you put out peanuts, fruit, sunflower seeds, or suet.
Occasionally Red-bellied Woodpeckers prey on lizards, tree frogs, even the nestlings of other birds.
Pairs excavate nest cavities in wood, including dead tree trunks, dead limbs of living trees, telephone poles, and fence posts. Both the male and female incubate the eggs and feed the young.
The tapping, hammering, drumming, and drilling sounds made by Red-bellied and other woodpeckers are, of course, distinctive features, and many sound patterns are species-specific. Aside from nest excavation, the various pecking sounds function in foraging, territorial behavior, and courtship.
Studies suggest that a woodpecker can strike a tree with its chisel-like beak several hundred times per minute, up to 12,000 times in a single day, and with a force 1,000 times that of gravity.
Why doesn’t all this heavy pounding cause serious brain injury? Recent research suggests that the answer lies, in part, in the microstructure of the woodpecker’s thick skull. Here the bones are unusually spongy and mesh-like, tightly surrounding the brain and cushioning it from high-impact trauma.
Also, the unique structure of a woodpecker’s beak may allow it to deform slightly while the bird is hammering away. These tiny shape changes help the beak absorb some of the impact of pecking before it reaches the brain.
Scientists are hoping that a further understanding of the complex shock-absorbing adaptations of woodpeckers may help us learn more about the forces leading to brain trauma, as well as how to design better protective headgear for humans.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at email@example.com.