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Nature Notes: Red-bellied woodpeckers more common locally

Move over. Here come the red-bellied woodpeckers.

In the last half century, these stunning, robin-sized woodpeckers, who traditionally lived in the southern United States, have since branched out and colonized regions as far north as New England and beyond.

Why the change?

“Reasons for their expansion include climate change (leading to warmer winters), maturation of the forests in New England, and an abundance of birdfeeders that provide food for them during the winter months,” explained Chris Loscalzo, president of the Connecticut Ornithological Association.

“Red-bellied woodpeckers were rare in Connecticut as recently as 50 years ago,” Loscalzo said, “but are quite common and widespread now.”

Other birds who have edged farther north from their southern habitats include Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, tufted titmouse, and cardinals, Loscalzo said.

In his new book, “What It’s Like to be a Bird,” acclaimed painter and author David Allen Sibley also believes suburbanization played a role in attracting red-bellied woodpeckers and other species to move as far north as New England. “Closely spaced houses and hedges, creating warm microclimates, and dense cover in the form of planted exotic shrubs and trees” have enabled the shift, he wrote.

Some cool facts about red-bellied woodpeckers: They catch insects hidden in deep crevices or beneath tree bark with a long tongue, tipped with a barb and sticky saliva.

Males, in fact, have “longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food,” according to allaboutbirds.org.

Red-bellied woodpeckers get their name from the red feathers of their underbelly feathers. And according to Loscalzo, they are “feisty and will stand their ground in interactions with other species such as blue jays and other bird species of similar size.”

These handsome birds are cavity dwellers, nesting in dead trees or in dead limbs on live trees. To attract a mate, the male red-bellied woodpecker picks a nesting site and begins excavating. Soon after sending woodchips flying, “they try to attract a female by calling and tapping softly on the wood around or in the cavity. When a female accepts, she taps along with the male, then helps put the finishing touches on the nest cavity,” allaboutbirds.org said.

Finally, if you live near wooded areas and put suet cakes or black oil sunflower seeds out, you can easily attract red-bellied woodpeckers.

“They are beautiful, gaudy, large woodpeckers and one of the most interesting birds that will regularly visit your feeders,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of The Connecticut Audubon Society.

Bill Hobbs lives in Stonington. He can be reached for comments at whobbs246@gmail.com.

CORRECTION: In the last column two weeks ago on dragonflies, I misstated the insect’s leg count. Dragonflies have six legs.

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