Red-bellied Woodpecker is rare visitor

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 7, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Immigrant or visitor, red-bellied woodpecker finds food here.”

2014 Update: Records for Laramie and Cheyenne shown in are the only ones for Wyoming, but don’t include this observation.

By Barb Gorges

Birds are illiterate, at least in the usual sense. However, the most successful, longest-lived birds are very good at reading signs in their environment to avoid danger and locate food, shelter and the opposite sex.

Birds do not read field guides.

A red-bellied woodpecker was seen in January in Cheyenne several times by three different people.

I was a little skeptical when I got the first call. I’ve never seen a red-bellied woodpecker, which despite its name, is recognized by its black and white striped back and the red on the top of its head (male only) and back of its neck.

Jane and Bob Dorn, authors of “Wyoming Birds,” list only two records of the species in the state. One was January 1993 in the latilong that contains Douglas and the other May 1992 in the Cheyenne latilong.

For the purposes of bird records, the state is divided into 28 latilongs, each measuring one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude.

Red-bellieds are birds of the southeastern United States which have gradually increased their range to the north, and now, apparently, to the west.
In the 1961 edition of his western bird guide, Roger Tory Peterson mentions red-bellieds are casual to Colorado, meaning a few records, but they don’t merit an illustration. The Stokes’ 1996 western edition doesn’t mention them at all.

“The Sibley Guide to Birds,” 2000 edition, shows the westernmost boundary of the red-bellied’s range approximately at the 100th Meridian, that magical line of longitude marking the difference between eastern and western species of biota in North America.

The 100th Meridian slices vertically through the middle of Nebraska, a mere 250 miles east of Cheyenne. What’s that distance to an eastern bird with a decent set of wings?

This winter’s visitor could be here by some accident of weather–and that would have to be some accident to get the wind to blow out of the east long enough.

It’s more likely the intervening Great Plains, thanks to all the mature windbreaks, can now host a species dependent on large trees full of bugs and seeds and fruit.

How many other red-bellieds have visited Cheyenne birdfeeders without being recognized as unusual? How many have met disaster shortly after arriving, such as plate glass windows, storms, loose cats and natural predators, and are never seen by bird watchers?

Chances are we’ll have more reports of red-bellied woodpeckers, if only because the number of bird watchers continues to increase.

In this month’s issue, National Geographic used the estimate of 63 million bird watchers in this country alone to justify launching their own birding magazine.

What will happen to our red-bellied visitor? We must assume, until proven otherwise, that there’s only one since only one female has been seen each time.

It could survive the winter quite well using the three well-stocked backyard feeding stations it has already found.

It’s not a seasonal migratory species, and it may not be inclined to move in the spring, so it could become a resident.

And, compared to its stronghold in the southeastern U.S., it doesn’t have as many species of woodpecker competitors out here.

However, a few observations of red-bellied woodpeckers in Wyoming won’t change the “accidental” status of the species until there are breeding records.

If the conditions that allowed one member of the species to find its way here stay constant, chances are more will follow and then breeding could happen.

Birds are opportunists. Short of being dropped here by the wind, a bird wouldn’t travel to Cheyenne if it hadn’t read signs along the way for favorable conditions for survival.

Whether it becomes a resident depends on finding enough of the habitat it is used to, or adapting to what is available.

It’s about the same for the rest of us coming to Wyoming from elsewhere. Except we people have the ability to make things more like our old homes, so we tend to plant trees, diminishing the grasslands and their species.