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The Red-headed Woodpecker is gorgeous without a doubt, and it’s not hard to imagine where it gets its name from. Stunning scarlet heads contrast dramatically against black and white checkerboard bodies.
This bird has a generous year-round range in the United States that has allowed me to enjoy many sightings. My first sighting was in my home state of Georgia, and my most recent occurred in eastern Texas. Each one is always exciting as a flash of black, white, and red flutters through the sky.
I always fall in love with birds with neatness to their plumage. As an artist, I compare this to painting with acrylic versus watercolors. There is no bleeding of lines or blending of colors, and for some reason, it is so satisfying for me to see in nature.
After brushing up on the exciting Red-headed Woodpecker, I discovered that this bird was, in fact, one of Alexander Wilson’s favorites for the same reason. If you’re unfamiliar with Alexander Wilson, he is commonly referred to as the “Father of American Ornithology.”
The Red-headed Woodpecker belongs to the family Picidae which encapsulates woodpeckers, sapsuckers, wrynecks, and piculets. Their foraging behavior sets them apart as they scale tree trunks, pry bark, and drill through wood. In addition to the Red-headed Woodpecker, the genus Melanerpes contains 24 other species, including:
- White Woodpecker
- Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Guadeloupe Woodpecker
- Puerto Rican Woodpecker
- Acorn Woodpecker
- Yellow-tufter Woodpecker
- Golden-naped Woodpecker
- Beautiful Woodpecker
- White-fronted Woodpecker
- Hispaniolan Woodpecker
- Jamaican Woodpecker
- Golden-cheeked Woodpecker
- Grey-breasted Woodpecker
- Yucatan Woodpecker
- Red-crowned Woodpecker
- Gila Woodpecker
- Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
- Golden-fronted Woodpecker
- Velasquez’s Woodpecker
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- West Indian Woodpecker
The Red-headed Woodpecker is a monotypic species, meaning no subspecies have been determined.
How to Identify a Red-headed Woodpecker
Size and Shape
The Red-headed Woodpecker is a medium-sized bird falling somewhere between a crow and a robin. If you’re familiar with your woodpeckers, they will be about the same size as a Hairy Woodpecker. The Red-headed Woodpecker is 7.5-9.1 inches in length, with a wingspan of 16.5 inches. The average weight is about 2.0-3.2 ounces.
The build of the bird is typical of woodpeckers with a large round head, a long spiked bill for drilling, and a short tail for balancing.
Surprisingly, the crimson head of a Red-headed Woodpecker can sometimes be difficult to spot depending on the glare of the sun and the bird’s positioning. Luckily, their bright white chests and black and white wings usually give them away.
Male and females are identical in appearance. The head, neck, and throat are a deep crimson red, meeting a white breast and buffy white underparts. The wings and tail are black, with a large white square towards the bottom. They display large white wing patches in flight. Juveniles molt from a brown and red blend on their head as they grow into their namesake colors, and their white wing patches will have black spots throughout.
Where Does a Red-headed Woodpecker Live: Habitat
The Red-headed Woodpecker is found across the eastern-central United States and southern Canada. Northern birds migrate south to avoid winter temperatures while existing southern flocks stay.
Open woodlands and deciduous forests are the top habitat choices for these birds that thrive alongside dying trees. Recently cleared areas where a prescribed burn or wildfire occurred are also suitable habitats, along with river bottoms, beaver swamps, orchards, and parks.
Red-headed Woodpeckers rely on dead or dying trees for housing and nesting cavities. In the northern parts of their distribution range, their nesting cavities are typically found among oak, oak-hickory, maple, ash, or beech trees. Pine and pine-oak are commonly used for those located in the south.
Red-headed Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Known for its unique foraging style and omnivorous diet, the Red-headed Woodpecker, is extremely talented at catching insects mid-flight. They perch on nearby branches waiting for the opportune moment to dive down and catch unsuspecting insects.
Their diet consists of honeybees, cicadas, grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, nuts, seeds, and berries. Aside from flycatching, insects are found under tree bark, along trunks, and under leaves and branches. They have also been known to raid the nests of sparrows, bluebirds, and chickadees, feeding on young and eggs.
The Red-headed Woodpecker will forage on the ground near shrubbery as its partner searches in the trees. This species of woodpecker will drill in search of wood-boring larvae. However, it is less common, and they prefer to rely on catching insects.
Food caching is common in woodpeckers, and this species is no different. Using its long chisel-like bill, the Red-headed Woodpecker will stash seeds, nuts, grasshoppers, cherries, and corn into cracks and holes in trees. The woodpecker will break down the size of a nut into smaller pieces until it fits in the desired crevice. You might also see a woodpecker doing this on the roof of your house, using your shingles to conceal their food supply. They will return to the food stores during cold months to supplement dwindling resources.
Red-headed Woodpecker Breeding
Red-headed Woodpeckers typically display monogamous behaviors; however, polygyny, meaning the male has multiple female partners, has been observed. Pairs may stay together throughout many breeding seasons, but this isn’t always the case.
During breeding seasons, males will drum loudly to attract females. Once the mating bond has been formed between a pair, they will move on to their next order of business; selecting a nesting site.
Red-headed Woodpecker Nesting
Males will seek out an ideal nesting location in a deciduous wooded area near the edge of the forest. He shows this location to this chosen female partner, and she will typically show approval by drumming on or near the site. The male does the grunt work of excavating the site in preparation for moving in while the female diligently oversees the process.
Nesting cavities may be located in fence posts, utility poles, a natural tree cavity, or previously used cavities, whether by the same bird or another species entirely. Ideally, cavities are high off the ground, anywhere from 8 feet to 80 feet, and typically 20 to 60 centimeters deep.
Red-headed Woodpecker Eggs
From April to July, the female begins the egg-laying process. She will lay a clutch size somewhere between 3 to 10 eggs, with five being the most common. The goal is that one to two of these eggs will produce viable broods. Eggs are completely white and are about 1 inch in length by 0.8 inches wide.
Once the final egg in the clutch has been laid, both parents begin the incubation process. Males take nighttime duty while females spend most days atop their precious eggs. The incubation period lasts for 12 to 14 days until hatching occurs.
When the little bundles of joy have entered the world, their eyes will remain closed for 12 more days as they receive constant food and attention from their parents. The parents will spend the next several weeks devoting all of their time and attention to food collection for their nestlings. After one month of uninterrupted nurturing, the chicks will leave are ready to leave the nest. If they linger near mom and dad for too long after fledging, they will be chased off and forced to fend for themselves.
Mating takes place one to two times per year, depending on the pair, and ambitious pairs may even begin the process of starting a second brood while still raising their first brood. Talk about overachievers.
Red-headed Woodpecker Population
During the late 1800s, the Red-headed Woodpecker was so abundant that orchard farmers offered a bounty for the birds to be shot from their fruit and nut trees. Today, the Red-headed Woodpecker has shown declining population numbers due to a lack of suitable nesting sites. This phenomenon has been observed with many species of birds who rely on decaying or dead trees. Additionally, the invasive nature of European Starlings proves to be a threat to many as they rob and sabotage nests.
Is Red-headed Woodpecker Endangered?
The Red-headed Woodpecker is not endangered but is listed as near-threatened and is protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Declining by 1% every year, the total population has decreased by 54% since 1966. An estimated 1.8 million remain, and they are indicated as 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score.
The practice of felling dead trees and trimming branches directly affects the well-being of this species, and I always encourage people to leave a dead tree alone unless it presents a safety concern.
Wildlife management groups aid populations by creating suitable habitats by leaving dead tree branches and snags. In other areas, nesting boxes are nailed to trees within their range.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are known to control insect populations and disperse seeds. Additionally, unused nesting cavities provide shelter for other birds and species who are unable to excavate their own site.
Red-headed Woodpecker Habits
Red-headed Woodpeckers use a variety of communication methods in different social encounters and as defense mechanisms. Drumming, or the act of banging against a tree or metal sign (common in woodpeckers), is used as a courtship practice to attract a mate. Other courtship practices include playing a cheeky game of “hide and seek,” where the male and female run around tree stumps and utility poles chasing one another. Cute!
Drumming is used to fend off territorial threats along with other vocalizations. If you hear a nearby “churring” call, it is likely an adult Red-headed Woodpecker warding off a predator.
Red-headed Woodpecker Predators
This species of woodpecker is defensive by nature and doesn’t back down from a fight against other woodpeckers or Starlings. Other predators include raptors, peregrine falcons, eastern screech owls, and red foxes.
Red-headed Woodpecker Lifespan
Around 62% of all adult Red-headed Woodpeckers survive each year. The oldest known Red-headed Woodpecker on record was nine years and 11 months old, according to The Bird Banding Laboratory.
Attracting Red-headed Woodpeckers
First things first, are you within the range of the Red-headed Woodpecker? If you are located in southern Canada or central to the eastern United States, you’re likely within its primary range. If you live elsewhere, maybe check out this cool webcam offered by Cornell Labs of a sapsucker forest and try to spot one!
If you’re within their range and wish to lure one to your backyard paradise, you’ll need to ensure you have a few things to entice this species to your backyard paradise. Firstly, a bird feeder with a tail prop will greatly increase your chances. Woodpeckers use their tail like a third leg or kickstand that allows them to stabilize themselves as they lean against trees. Without it, they would not be able to drum or drill.
Secondly, take that lovely new feeder and fill it with protein-rich suet. Other favorite treats include peanut butter, black oil, sunflower seeds, tree nuts, and nectar. Yum! Having this tasty food nearby will let them know you’re a friend of the woodpeckers.
Thirdly, when you offer resources and a resting place such as a water source, birdhouse, or nesting box, you might be lucky enough to end up with a small family of woodpeckers in your yard. The comfort of knowing they don’t have to travel far for resources when taking up residence is something we can all understand. Watching young birds grow up right from your porch is like having National Geographic on 24/7.
I hope you’ve learned something new about these fascinating and beautiful birds that will make watching them in the wild even more enthralling. Their curious spirits and keen attention to detail are just a few reasons for seeing them at the bird blind is a treat! As always, if you are able, consider aiding your area with conservation efforts for near-threatened species. We can only hope that generations of bird lovers are able to enjoy this marvelous species.
Answer: Decreasing numbers means that this once common bird has become a bit harder to find in recent years. Deforestation and dwindling food supplies have left this species susceptible to becoming a near-threatened species.
Answer: Ancient cultures revere the woodpecker as a sign of prosperity, strength, wisdom, kindness, and protection. It is recognized for its ability to make good things happen out of unlikely circumstances.
Answer: The Bird Banding Laboratory says the oldest known Red-headed Woodpecker recorded was 119 months. The maximum lifespan in their range is about 12 years.
Answer: The scientific name for the Red-headed Woodpecker is Melanerpes erythrocephalus, coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758.
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