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Red-bellied Woodpeckers May Squabble Over Turf Issues

Dear Bird Folks,

Today I looked out my kitchen window and saw a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers having a nasty skirmish. They were going up and down the tree, squawking and attacking each other. Do you think they were actually fighting or was it a mating ritual?

– Zack, Clinton, MA


You know, Zack,

Where I work we have a basket of pencils. If someone tells us a joke, we ring a bell and he or she wins a pencil. We have been doing this for decades and have heard some very funny jokes. We’ve also heard some jokes that make us wish we had run out of pencils. But at least we get to hear a steady number of fresh jokes. This helps relieve some of the tension in the high-pressure world of birdseed. Unfortunately, it all changed the day the Internet became popular. Now we are hearing the same joke over and over. What does the Internet have to do with hearing the same jokes? Well, the moment anyone hears a new joke they quickly post it on their Facebook page and instantly the entire world knows about it. Then people come running to us, armed with this new joke and visions of pencils dancing in their heads. As a result we are now hearing the same joke forty times in a row. What does any of this have to do with your fighting woodpeckers? Not much really, except I have gotten this same “fighting woodpecker” question several times this week. It’s like the jokes have morphed into bird questions. There are either a lot of fighting woodpeckers out there or one tech-savvy woodpecker has been putting its fighting video clips up on Facebook. Even the birds have gotten hooked on Facebook.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has been causing confusion for years. Most folks call it a “Red-‘headed’” Woodpecker, because it has some red on its head. In addition, most of us never see this bird’s red belly because woodpeckers are the original tree-huggers. The majority of the time they are clinging to tree trunks, so we only get to see their backs. The tree blocks our view of their faint red belly. And for those folks who think Red-bellied Woodpeckers should be called “red-headed,” should look at pictures of real Red-headed Woodpeckers. Their heads are ridiculously solid, bright red, while the heads of red-bellies are far less red, with some barren spots, like the head of Donald Trump.

Not everyone in New England is familiar with this bird because red-bellies are new to the area. They didn’t start nesting in Massachusetts until recently. The first known successful red-belly nest wasn’t confirmed until 1977. (I know 1977, which was thirty-five years ago, isn’t exactly “just recently,” but it sure seems like recently to old people like me.) Red-bellied Woodpeckers are southern birds that have been expanding their range northward. The reason for their expansion isn’t totally understood, but possible reasons for moving north include climate change, the abundance of birdfeeders and avoidance of South Carolina’s nasty Republican presidential primary.

Some woodpeckers, such as the Northern Flickers for example, migrate each fall, but Red-bellies remain in the same locality throughout the year. Because of that they defend a territory summer and winter. Territories that provide both food and shelter are worth fighting for and that’s exactly what the woodpeckers you saw were doing. A young bird probably just happened to wander into your yard. It liked what it found and was just about to settle in, when the legal property owner arrived and the battle was on. Woodpecker fights can be pretty serious. They don’t have sissy fights like we might see from say…baseball players. Any bird that has the ability to bore right through a tree trunk (without getting a headache) is more than capable of inflicting serious damage.

The two birds you saw, Zack, were just having a turf squabble. These fights don’t happen every day, so I don’t know why everyone suddenly is asking about them. Maybe if I post your answer on my Facebook page I won’t have to write everyone who asked individually. But first I’ll have to have someone teach me how to make a Facebook page. Does anyone know how? If you help me I’ll pay you with a nice Whitman’s Sampler. Who can pass that up?