Photo credit: Dan Lory

To the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Today's bird is a woodpecker, but I'm not going where you might think with this hammer analogy. Actually, I was the guy with only the hammer, and the Red-bellied Woodpecker was the nail. I will try to explain.

For much of my life, my awareness of birds was limited to game birds of Michigan--Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant, Ruffed Grouse, Woodcock--and all the common birds that you'd have to try really hard not to notice, like the Robin, Blue Jay, Grackle, Starling, Chickadee, Cardinal. As much time as I spent in the woods, of course I saw and heard many more types of birds, but they were just a big blur--figuratively and literally. I divided the entire avian universe into big amorphous buckets. Lawn Birds--Robins and Blackbirds. All Little Brown Birds--Sparrows. Big Birds that ate Little Brown Birds--Hawks. I was ignorant of the variety and the beauty of those things with feathers.

And I persisted in my ignorance, because I had a hammer. Robins always nested in our elm tree, and I got to know their song very well. I also learned their call when they were agitated. It was the only bird whose song I had ever really paid close attention to, and I was confident that I knew Robins.


When I went hiking, armed with that hammer, it was amazing how many Robins I always heard. They were all over the place. I had an uncanny ability to turn any bird's song into a Robin's. If it didn't sound exactly like the Robins at home, well, forest birds had different accents, I told myself, or completely different songs that the backyard Robins never used. It made scientific sense, too. After all, the Robin is one of the most ubiquitous of birds, so it was only natural that I would hear so many of them... right? ...right?

In my defense, some birds really do sound a lot like the Robin. The warbling of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, for example, resembles a Robin that's had singing lessons. And the Red-bellied Woodpecker often makes a short little half-swallowed "cheerp" that sounds something like the Robin's agitation call--if you have a creative imagination.

I can still remember the day and the place where I acquired a tool besides the hammer. While hiking up at Black Lake, a Red-bellied Woodpecker landed on a nearby tree and started making its "cheerp" sound. Of course, I looked around for a Robin, until I realized that the call was coming from this woodpecker. The scales fell from my eyes, and I thought back to the countless times I had heard this call and assumed it was a Robin. All those times...I was actually hearing Red-headed Woodpeckers, I thought, not Robins.

I'm telling you this so you know where enlightenment comes from.

It took me another couple years to learn that this was actually a Red-bellied Woodpecker, not a Red-headed Woodpecker. I take on new tools slowly.


The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a year-long resident of the midwest, adding color and sound to our otherwise drab winterscape. It scales the trunks and large limbs of trees, chipping away the bark to uncover insects hiding there. Add a little suet to your bird-feeding station and you'll almost certainly attract a Red-bellied.

Oh, and one last thing. Take a close look at the bird in photo 3. With a hairpiece like that, he could probably be a candidate for the highest office in birdland. Just sayin'....

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.