Walking through the woods in late fall, everything seems to be settling in—the colors calming to variations of brown, the dull roar of the wind the only sound. That is, until the staccato “cha-cha-cha” call of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the lull of the wind, and a tiny black and white tuxedo (complete with a red cap) flashes past me, announcing the bird’s entrance into the woods.
Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are year-round residents of Lake County, Illinois. The sounds and sights of these birds in the woodlands and at backyard feeders command attention, especially against the bland backdrop of late autumn and early winter. Like its six fellow species of woodpeckers in Illinois, the red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes, commonly called cavities, in trees for nesting and shelter—all the while snacking away on the tiny critters crawling under the bark.
These sturdy birds have a host of adaptations that enable them to lead this lifestyle of pecking wood. With a chisel-like beak, red-bellied woodpeckers are busy at this time of the year, carving out winter roosts in dead trees called “snags.” In addition to shelter, snags offer a jackpot of insects and other invertebrates for foraging. These woodpeckers have unique tongues that extend two inches past the end of their beaks and have a stiff barbed tip, which makes an effective tool for extracting insects from deep within the wood. When not in use, the tongue wraps behind the skull—over the top, down between the eye sockets and anchored in a nostril!
Red-bellied woodpeckers have also been observed wedging acorns and other nuts into the bark of a tree and then whacking them into smaller, more manageable, pieces. They will also use cracks in trees like a pantry, storing seeds and nuts for those cold winter days. These multi-purpose beaks are used for communication as well. The “rat-a-tat-tat” drumming sounds that echo through the woods attract mates and establish territories. All this banging around that would give humans a concussion is not a problem for a bird with built-in shock absorbers. A spongy layer of hollow chambers lines the area between their outer and inner skull, reducing movement of the brain while they peck away at trees and nuts.
Look for the undulating flight of these woodpeckers next time you visit a Lake County Forest Preserve. Lucky explorers may even catch displays of erratic flight combined with quick chattering calls, which scientists have recently identified as playful behavior that helps young birds practice their agility. One way to get a close-up look at each species of woodpecker that calls Lake County home is by installing a suet bird feeder. Already feeding backyard birds during the winter and want to take it a step further? Help scientists gather data on our avian friends through Project FeederWatch.
Are you fascinated by these amazing and colorful birds but want to keep them drumming on your trees and not on your house? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great resource for woodpecker damage, prevention and control.