No knocks on this ‘red belly’

Thinking about a “red belly” right before Christmas brings to mind the immediate picture of that jovial character with his Ho! Ho! Ho! Nothing against that generous benefactor (I have been a VERY good girl, Santa), particularly since this is being written before THAT day) but I have a quite different quarry in mind.

How about the bird? A bird so-named in fact without a single red feather on his entire belly. (Though my eleven-hundred-plus-page tome does mention a “reddish tinge difficult to see.”) Definitely, I’d say. In fact, this bird’s belly is a solid “whitish” (says another book) – or a gentle gray perhaps.

It is classified as a ladder-backed woodpecker for the stripes which do cover its back. There are others but none that we should expect to see around here. That’s an excellent first field marking though what sets this bird apart is its red head. Yup, head. The male has a gorgeous scarlet cowl that extends from his neck, over his head and on down to where the beak begins. Not surprisingly, the female is short-changed. She is given the same beautiful red but must wear hers only on the back of her head.

I find it interesting that the Audubon guide refers to these birds as zebrabacks. Ladder-backed makes visible sense. I’d have trouble accepting the zebra part for, from what I know, those markings can be very diverse indeed.

Originally more common in the South, its breeding range now extends as far north as New York where, in fact, it has become one of the most common feeders at my suet. I think of this as a small bird (meaning it’s been a while since I’ve seen one up close) but it is actually an inch larger than the hairy and two inches bigger than the common downy woodpecker. Stunning then in color and size.

So why not be reasonable and name this bird the red-headed woodpecker? Simple answer is that there is a red-headed and its head is solid red. In that case, both sexes get the color. Nice.

These special birds aren’t particularly picky in their eating habits, taking what’s most easily available. That can include acorns, beechnuts, wild fruits, seeds, wood-boring beetles, ants, flies, caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers and other insects.

Should perchance you not happen to have a grasshopper or two handy, these birds will happily come to your feeder for suet, nuts, fruits and seeds. I find our appetites quite compatible.

Need we think of courtship? Well, St. V’s Day isn’t that far away. The pair will communicate when those urges begin by hammering together on a tree. The tree must be living or recently dead with a good hole as the potential site of the nest to come. What makes this pair unique for me is that, while mutually tapping, one is on the tree while the other taps back from inside. My guide does not specify which one gets stuck in the drum.

Should a usable tree not be convenient, this pretty bird can also choose to nest in an old stump, fence post or utility post. They might even opt for an old birdhouse.

Usually no higher than 40 feet off the ground, the nest hole is about two inches in diameter but 10 to 20 inches deep. That’s a lot of digging going on! I can see why they might prefer to return to an old nest.

She will usually lay four or five eggs with both sharing the incubating duties though, for reasons unknown, “dad” prefers the nighttime hours.

This is one bird who chooses not to migrate so keep your eyes open. Listen too for that drumming, “a pleasant rolling tattoo.” They tend not to be particularly shy and will hang around yards and gardens as long as trees or shrubs are close by.

Happy hunting! It’s really worth the look.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to