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Living Sanibel: Red-bellied woodpecker

By Staff | Jan 20, 2016

Red-bellied woodpecker. PHOTO BY BOB GRESS

Anyone with a home located near a nesting pair of red-bellied woodpecker may be all too familiar with the habits of this medium-size woodpecker. In the spring, during the breeding season, it loves to hammer on tin roofs, hollow trees, or anything loud that might attract a mate, but will assuredly drive the homeowners half-crazy. This noisy bird also makes a trill-like sound that is fairly easy to identify, resembling a rolling churrr, churr, churr sound, like a gargled chirp.

This species is misnamed because it doesn’t have much of a red belly. Its underside has a slightly rosy hue, but it is far easier to identify from its partially red head and beautiful back markings, which resemble a black and white ladder-hence its nickname, ladderback (not to be confused with the smaller southwestern ladder-backed woodpecker).

One amazing characteristic of the woodpecker is the length of its tongue. Although shorter than that of some species, the male red-bellied woodpecker’s tongue can be up to 4 inches long, protruding deep into holes and crevices where it pulls out arthropods, a primary part of the woodpecker’s diet. It also eats seeds, nuts, sap, and fruit and has been known to feed on tree frogs and small lizards.

The red-bellied woodpecker loves nesting boxes and can be found using them when available anywhere in its range. It sometimes competes with starlings for the best nesting boxes, and it’s not unusual to see the two species quarreling over them. This woodpecker is sometimes taken by hawks, and its nests, when in trees rather than nesting boxes, can be raided by palm rats and snakes. It is monogamous and mates for life.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.