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Uncommon sighting was amazing coincidence

I recently opened a handwritten letter from a friend of mine. Yes, handwritten! He's written to me before to report interesting avian observations -- some of which have spawned articles that I've written about the very subjects he wrote to tell me about.

Because of Mr. Lillquist, many of you have enjoyed reading about the apparent increase of black-billed magpies in parts of northern Minnesota, about the evident decrease of western meadowlarks throughout the open landscapes and farm country, and a segue to one of a handful of northern shrike stories I've written over the years.

Indeed, about the latter subject, I related the story of a shrike that eradicated Mr. Lillquist's local mole population. Accordingly, the shrike stayed for several days, apparently content with its surroundings and ample food supply of moles scurrying beneath Mr. Lillquist's backyard bird feeders.

The subject this week is about a species of bird I know little about. Other than whenever I observe an individual of this uncommon species of "ladder-back" and knowing that I have just seen a red-bellied woodpecker, the bird is a relative mystery to yours truly.

As it happened, when I finished reading the letter Mr. Lillquist sent me, I glanced out my office window at the suet feeder . Guess what I saw? Would you believe a red-bellied woodpecker? Crazy luck, that's for sure!

I watched the colorful woodpecker spend a moment perched on the suet ball suspended below the building's eve. The bird didn't appear overly nervous, but was nevertheless watchful as it fed. Waiting nearby for their turn were two other woodpeckers -- a downy and a hairy woodpecker. Soon, the red-bellied woodpecker flew off.

Characterized as medium- sized, red-bellied woodpeckers are about the same size of hairy woodpeckers, although they appear a little larger, but not as big as northern flickers. Their wingspans are about 12 to 16inches, with a total body length between 9and 10 inches. But what sets them apart from other Minnesota woodpeckers are their uniquely barred black-and-white backs (hence, "ladder back") along with their striking red caps.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are one of six species of North American woodpeckers that share the same genus, Melanerpes. And of these half dozen birds, only one other of the genus occurs in Minnesota: the red-headed woodpecker.

Mr. Lillquist wrote that he has observed red-bellied woodpeckers at his brother's home near Faribault, Minnesota. The location of this observation helps to explain -- as well as to answer an important question that many people in the Northland ask when they observe a red-bellied woodpecker -- that is, what the range of this species of bird really is.

The range of red-bellied woodpeckers includes the entire east half of the United States, including much of Minnesota, particularly the southeast and within a line northeast to Duluth. They are found in a wide variety of forest types, including urban woodlands and especially in forested river bottoms. Throughout Minnesota's great northwest, red-bellied woodpeckers remain infrequent visitors that probably rarely breeds and nests here.

But show up they do. And when they do, they seem to generate a lot of excitement from people lucky enough to see them. Mr. Lillquist wrote that the first red-bellied woodpecker that he noticed on his farm was a bird that showed up at his suet feeder on Feb. 10, 2009. He reported that the bird stayed only a few days, which turns out to be typical of individual birds occurring outside their primary range. It's also what other people observe as well -- the red-bellied woodpecker makes an appearance, stays a spell, and then leaves and never comes back.

Yet sometimes they do come back, and sometimes they do stay a spell. In the case of Mr. Lillquist, another red-bellied woodpecker showed up (albeit more than two years later) just this past fall. As he wrote, "He or she has been a daily visitor since late October, mostly on suet, although I have seen it in the sunflower seeds a few times."

Considering that I observed a red-bellied woodpecker as soon as I finished reading Mr. Lillquist's letter, and when one takes into account what happened to Mr. Lillquist as he sat writing his letter, well, the odds of such coincidences are incalculable. It was remarkable for me to look at the photograph he included of his red-bellied woodpecker and read what he wrote: "The picture was taken on 12/10/11, but it's still here, as I'm watching it as I write this.

He saw a red-bellied woodpecker while writing his letter and I saw a red-bellied woodpecker immediately after reading his letter.

Mr. Lillquist, did you mail me that bird?

Such is life, and twists of fate. Neat stuff.

Well, dear readers, it seems this column has strayed a bit. I had intended on writing more of a natural history account of this interesting species of bird. Perhaps I will at another time.

The fact is, and to answer another of Mr. Lillquist's questions, observations of red-bellied woodpeckers will likely remain uncommon, at least for the time being, in our neck of the woods.

Other birders, too, have reported to me seeing this uncommon woodpecker at their feeders, only to watch it disappear a day or two later.

Will the red-bellied woodpecker eventually become more abundant throughout Minnesota's northwest? Maybe. What with milder winters and the abundance of backyard bird feeding stations, the bird could very well be the woodpecker equivalent of the northern cardinal -- another species that has expanded its range northward.

Happy holidays, everyone. Thank you for reading my "Northwords" and for all your thoughtful letters, emails and phone calls, and for all your kind words as we've bumped into one another on the street -- I do appreciate it very much.

'Tis the season, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at