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How Red-bellies turned a bad spot into a good nest

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hudson Valley, New York. Photo by Michael Travis.

When we moved into our house in northern Minnesota in 1981, a wonderfully healthy young box elder stood next to our driveway. Now, 35 years later, a big rotten section of the trunk has become my favorite part of the whole tree. A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers started digging out a nest hole this May.

In 1981, Red-bellied Woodpecker was a hotline species in my neck of the woods — any sighting was thrilling. In 2004, a female turned up in my yard in mid-winter, and lots of birders came to see her. I bribed her to stick around for a few months by offering mealworms as well as suet, peanuts, and peanut butter, but she disappeared as the nesting season approached.

Sightings in my yard were few and far between until the past five or six years. Before September 2015, when a pair showed up with three or four young of the year, I’d never seen both a male and a female in the same season. The pair had obviously nested somewhere in the Duluth area.

Backyard nesting

I was hopeful that they’d nest somewhere near me this spring, but it never occurred to me that they’d choose my backyard. I’d been hearing their calls every day since April, and sometimes I noticed a male and a female in the yard at the same time. Then, while working at my desk on May 26, I realized that for the past hour at least, I’d been hearing soft tapping. It didn’t let up, and every now and then it was punctuated with a Red-bellied call.

The tapping seemed to be nearby, so I started looking every time I heard the call, but I couldn’t see the birds. Finally, I caught a glimpse of the male flying toward the box elder. Trees obscured my view from inside the house, but from my yard, I saw the female digging away. Within a few minutes, the male called, she flew off, and he took over the work.

The hole was about 25 feet up and hard to see from below. I got a better view by standing on the roof of our front porch. Watching the two working so diligently made me appreciate the importance of rot.

The “bad spot” didn’t have any bark, but the outer wood was still too hard for squirrels to chew through while the heartwood was rotten. The birds had already cut an entrance hole through the hardest part and were now reaching in to scoop out soft, decayed wood. They would excavate a gourd-shaped chamber big enough to fit as many as six nestlings. Each could be almost as large as the adults before fledging.

When one of my friends noticed the rotten spots in the box elder, he suggested firewood. But I’m not looking for a Phoenix to rise from the ashes of my tree; I’m hoping to see little Red-bellied Woodpeckers taking life within the beautiful rot.

This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of BirdWatching. 

Five more columns by Laura Erickson

Feeding birds entails a serious responsibility.

Nests in your yard are delightful, most of the time.

Steps to take to keep backyard water features safe for birds.

Dealing with the smart and spirited Blue Jay.

How planting a tree can ensure a brighter future.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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