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Being a generalist is a successful lifestyle approach in the avian world. It means a bird is flexible about things like where to live and what to eat, both excellent survival tactics.

And that's the story behind the rise in red-bellied woodpeckers in our region, a large, handsome bird that has been pushing northward for the past 70 years.

It can be tough sometimes to tell whether you're looking at a downy or hairy woodpecker at your feeder, with their similar markings, but there's no ambiguity about red-bellied woodpeckers. These are large birds, the same size as a hairy woodpecker but with an arresting black and white barred back. In fact, some say a more descriptive name would be zebra-backed woodpecker.

And then there's that standout red-orange patch on the male bird's crown and nape (nape only, on the female), leading some to think its name is red-headed woodpecker. But another woodpecker already owns that title, so this bird was named for the faint rosy wash on its belly. This marking is seldom visible, since like all woodpeckers, this species is most often seen from the back as it hitches up a tree or pecks at peanuts in a feeder.

Red-bellieds may be the most vocal woodpecker in the woods (or the backyard), as they utter an easy-to-recognize "churr" call in all seasons of the year (to hear it, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site, type in red-bellied woodpecker and click on "sounds").

Their dietary flexibility means they consume insects and spiders hidden in bark crevices, nuts and fruits (they're big fans of the oranges set out for orioles) and nectar in hummingbird feeders. They've also been known to sip on flowers for a sugary treat. Unfortunately, they're also known to raid the nests of songbirds for eggs or nestlings in the spring.

While these woodpeckers prefer shady woodlands near water, they're increasingly being found in suburban and urban parks and backyards, announcing their presence with their loud call.

The factors that have led them to spread throughout the eastern half of the U.S. include the increase in trees in forests and urban and suburban areas, rising temperatures associated with our planet's warming and the increase in bird feeding.

I've observed a few epic battles between red-bellied woodpeckers and Northern flickers, probably competing for the same cavity in a tree. An even bigger threat is the nonnative European starling, which can be fiercely aggressive in trying to take over a tree hole excavated by a pair of these woodpeckers.

Most of the red-bellieds we see are nonmigratory, residing in our area year-round. In my backyard they spend a lot of time at feeders that offer shelled peanuts and suet, joined, in the summer, by their pale offspring. Sources say that this woodpecker nests once a year, but at least one bird observer in the metro area has documented a second brood in each of the past few years.

So, hats off to a misnamed but highly successful tree-clinging bird, who's not fussy about what it eats and where it lives, and is managing to capitalize on our changing natural world.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for a number of newspapers and magazines, can be reached at