Carolyn Gritzmaker

Master Naturalists

Woodpeckers are always interesting birds, and fun to watch. One of the most common in our area is the red-bellied woodpecker.

Not a shy bird, the red-bellied woodpecker is often found in towns as well as rural areas, and is common wherever there are large trees. You can often see one fly from tree to tree with that typical wavy, looping flight of a woodpecker, sweeping up at the end to land on the tree trunk more often than a branch. Many times you will see one at the very top of telephone poles. Often when one lands, it will call “churr, churrrr!”

Woodpeckers are able to cling to trees in ways that would be awkward for most other birds, and this is due to the way they are built. They have short legs, and their feet have long, sharp claws. The red-bellied, like most other woodpeckers, has four toes – two facing forward and two backward, so they can grip their perch tightly. 

In addition, their tail feathers are stiff and have sharp spines at the tips which enable the bird to use its tail to prop it in an upright position.  Thus they are able to hop up and down tree trunks and branches as easily as a robin runs along the ground.

The red-bellied is a medium-sized woodpecker, with a length of nine and one-half inches. The male has a red crown and nape of neck, and a gray face. 

The female has a red nape only, the rest of her head being gray. Both male and female have black and white barred wings and back. But don’t expect to find a bright red patch on one’s belly. The reddish coloring there is vague at best and sometimes can’t be seen unless you are holding the bird in your hand. 

So regardless of the bird’s name, the red belly is not a field mark to look for! Sometimes red-bellied woodpeckers are mistakenly called  red-headed woodpeckers, which are also in our area, though an uncommon bird to find. The true red-headed woodpecker has a completely red head and has no barring on its back or wings. 

When feeding, woodpeckers seem to listen for insects and larvae gnawing or moving inside the bark or wood of trees.

Then, with their sharp, chisel-like beak, they strike the wood hard to expose the insects or burrows. A woodpecker’s tongue is very long and tipped with a hard point with barbs on each side.  Once coated with their sticky saliva, they are able to use their tongues to dislodge ants and grubs from their burrows. It is interesting to note that only woodpeckers and hummingbirds are able to extend their tongues past the end of their beaks.

Sometimes you might find a red-bellied woodpecker feeding on the ground. Ants, grasshoppers and beetles are included in their diet.  About one-half of their diet consists of fruits and nuts. In the winter you can coax red-bellies to your feeder by offering suet, corn and nutmeats such as sunflower seeds and pecans.

The red-bellied woodpecker can be found year around in Ellis County.

For more information about Master Naturalists, call the AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175 or e-mail ellis-tx@tamu.edu.