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Red-bellied Woodpeckers Sunning

7-20-16 male red-bellied adult 173Red-bellied Woodpeckers have extended their breeding range northward and westward over the last 50 years and are now breeding in northern New England.  Many are year-round residents here, while some individuals move further south during particularly harsh winters.  This range extension allows for observations not possible even 10 or 20 years ago.

While watching a Red-bellied Woodpecker this summer, I witnessed behavior I had never observed before.  The bird flew repeatedly to the same tree branch, flattened itself on the branch with its body facing the sun and then fanned its wings out while cocking its head, raising its crown feathers, opening its beak and appearing to look at the sun.  This behavior is common enough to have a name – the woodpecker was “sunning” itself.  While preening, stretching and calling often takes place intermittently while the bird is engaged in sunning, it may also enter a stupor or state of lethargy.   (Thanks to Cindy Lawrence for photo op.)

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17 responses

  1. Elizabeth

    Any idea why?

    July 20, 2016 at 7:19 am

    • Afraid not. It was not a particularly cool day so I don’t think it’s for warmth. Would love to know the answer to your question!

      July 20, 2016 at 7:52 am

  2. Mary,

    In 2007 along South American Pond Road I noticed some “dead” birds. I photographed them, then as I moved closer they got up and flew away. Turns out they were juvenile Gray Jays sunning by laying on their sides. (attached)

    Since I found those three clumps of oak leaves, we have been seeing similar pieces on the ground “everywhere”. Probably have seen at least 50 broken-off groups of leaves. I don’t recall seeing this before this year.


    July 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

    • Afraid WordPress doesn’t allow photos to come through, but that’s fascinating, Jim. Was it cool when you observed this behavior? Not sure it has to do with warming up…and do you think the jays were responsible for breaking off the oak leaf clumps? I’ve never seen what you describe, but it is so interesting! (p.s. If you have the time to email me the photo, I would love to see it!)

      July 20, 2016 at 7:58 am

  3. Pat

    I have a Yellow-bellied sapsucker in my yard doing exactly the same thing – every day for over a week now and several times a day.

    July 20, 2016 at 7:27 am

    • So interesting. I’ve never seen or heard of a yellow-bellied sapsucker behaving in this fashion!

      July 20, 2016 at 8:01 am

  4. Roseanne

    That’s fascinating Mary. I might have, however, made the photo of the sunning bird the larger one. Details hard to see but I will now be on the lookout.


    July 20, 2016 at 7:58 am

    • Sorry, Roseanne. I photographed the sunning woodpecker from so far away, that making the image any larger would have made it even blurrier!

      July 20, 2016 at 8:00 am

  5. Alice Pratt

    Really love these birds & the sound they make. They love beef suet, which I do my best to provide near year round. Seems like I only see the male(s), with the un-broken red on their head.

    July 20, 2016 at 8:17 am

  6. Glenn Ferrand

    Were they anting?

    July 20, 2016 at 10:32 am

  7. Jean Haarrison

    To get ultraviolet to convert oils to vitamin D?? To get ultraviolet to sterilize – kill bacteria or small parasites??

    July 20, 2016 at 11:21 am

  8. Rachael Cohen

    I’ve seen an Eastern phoebe doing this on the roof of the little well-house that encloses my well-pump twice in the past couple of weeks. It stayed there plastered to the roof with wings outstretched for several minutes. It seems to me that it was quite hot and sunny both times. I’ll give you a call if I see it again — the well is a few feet away from the house and visible from the window of my home office.

    July 20, 2016 at 1:50 pm

  9. What I have read about birds “sunning” themselves is that they are allowing the extended wings to get very warm in the sun in an attempt to kill the mites that all birds are plagued with. In addition, the mites start moving about and the bird can prune itself easier. I wish I could find a reference. I will post later when I do. I have had several birds in my back yard doing this on the ground in a very sunny spot. They included robins, flickers, and cat birds.

    July 21, 2016 at 9:05 am

  10. Interesting. I’ve never noticed it but will keep my eyes open. Thanks.

    July 21, 2016 at 9:52 am

  11. I suspect it has to do with parasites – baking them out!

    July 22, 2016 at 11:30 pm

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