A handsome fellow with an appetite for ash borers


Our yard is full of excellent woodpecker habitat. Our block is full of yards just like ours, and if the area wasn’t also home to a bunch of predatory hawks and owls, the area might be a woodpecker’s idea of paradise. So it wasn’t much of a surprise this summer to discover a male red-bellied woodpecker was checking out our yard.

We first noticed him in August when his calls rang through the garden. We heard a lot of drumming and calling but rarely caught a glimpse of the bird itself. I’m not a knowledgeable birder, but since most local birds breed in the spring and early summer, I figured this guy was a youngster looking to set up his own territory.

He’s certainly a handsome fellow with a bright red blaze running from the back of his bill to the back of his head. The rest of his head and the breast are light gray, the wings and back patterned in black and white. The red belly is just a rosy spot between the legs. A real red-headed woodpecker boasts an entirely red head, not just a single, bold red head band like our boy who may sometimes be mistaken for that larger bird.

Unlike many other birds, red-bellied woodpeckers have adapted to living in suburban areas and even thrive in urban parks and greenways. They favor edge habitat near water where groups of trees dot more open terrain. That pretty much describes our neighborhood, even if the water is provided by ornamental pools and local bird baths.

There are both male and female downy woodpeckers at the feeders now, but so far the larger red-belly male is the only one of his kind. The suet feeder with the tailboard is his favorite dining spot, and it might be wise if he starts to vary his feeding schedule. The other morning a hawk lurking high in the spruce tops zoomed through the side yard intent on a woodpecker lunch. Our boy must have eluded his pursuer since I saw him stuffing himself on suet later in the day

We’ve been visited by larger woodpeckers in the past. A red-headed woodpecker hung around the front yard one winter day, but it didn’t linger. A yellow-bellied sapsucker stayed longer and even wintered here for several years, but after one really nasty winter it disappeared.

According to Cornell Bird Lab, red-bellied woodpeckers have been expanding their range northward in recent decades, and they aren’t considered endangered. The biggest threat to the birds is deforestation, and that’s a particular problem in Wisconsin, where thousands of ash trees are dying.

If any ashes survive naturally, however, red-bellied woodpeckers may be part of the reason. The birds love emerald ash borer larvae, and in some areas the woodpeckers have been found to eliminate about 85% of them. Encouraging red-bellied woodpeckers may be one of the best natural methods to reduce borer populations.

Our decaying trees and the dead ashes in the utility right-of-way should offer the woodpecker his choice of nesting location. I certainly hope he finds a female who thinks he and our neighborhood are just perfect so our colorful newcomer becomes a permanent resident.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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