gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker is so boldly patterned its
been called a flying checkerboard, with an entirely
crimson head, a snow-white body, and half white, half inky black
wings. These birds dont act quite like most other woodpeckers:
theyre adept at catching insects in the air, and they eat
lots of acorns and beech nuts, often hiding away extra food in tree
crevices for later. This magnificent species has declined severely
in the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to
its food supply.
Find This Bird
Look for Red-headed Woodpeckers in scattered, open
woodlots in agricultural areas, dead timber in swamps, or pine savannas.
Walk slowly, listening for tapping or drumming, and keep your eyes
alert for telltale flashes of black and white as these high-contrast
woodpeckers fly in between perches. The red head can be hard to
see in strong glare. Raucous, harsh weah! calls will also give away
the presence of a Red-headed Woodpecker.
At a Glance
Red-headed Woodpeckers occasionally visit feeders
in winter, especially suet. They will eat seeds, corn, acorns, beechnuts,
pecans, and many kinds of fruits (including apples, pears, cherries,
blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, mulberries, and
poison ivy fruits).
Smaller than a Northern Flicker; about
the size of a Hairy Woodpecker.
- Pic à tête rouge (French)
- Carpintero de cabeza roja (Spanish)
- The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of only four North American
woodpeckers known to store food, and it is the only one known
to cover the stored food with wood or bark. It hides insects and
seeds in cracks in wood, under bark, in fenceposts, and under
roof shingles. Grasshoppers are regularly stored alive, but wedged
into crevices so tightly that they cannot escape.
- Red-headed Woodpeckers are fierce defenders of their territory.
They may remove the eggs of other species from nests and nest
boxes, destroy other birds nests, and even enter duck nest
boxes and puncture the duck eggs.
- The Red-headed Woodpecker benefited from the chestnut blight
and Dutch elm disease outbreaks of the twentieth century. Though
these diseases devastated trees they provided many nest sites
and foraging opportunities for the woodpeckers.
- The striking Red-headed Woodpecker has earned a place in
human culture. Cherokee Indians used the species as a war symbol,
and it makes an appearance in Longfellows epic poem The
Song of Hiawatha, telling how a grateful Hiawatha gave the bird
its red head in thanks for its service.
- The Red-headed Woodpecker has many nicknames, including half-a-shirt,
shirt-tail bird, jellycoat, flag bird, and the flying checker-board.
- Pleistocene-age fossils of Red-headed Woodpeckersup
to 2 million years oldhave been unearthed in Florida, Virginia,
- The Red-headed Woodpecker was the spark bird
(the bird that starts a persons interest in birds) of legendary
ornithologist Alexander Wilson in the 1700s.
- The oldest Red-headed Woodpecker on record was banded in
1926 in Michigan and lived to be at least 9 years, 11 months old.
Red-headed Woodpeckers breed in deciduous woodlands with oak
or beech, groves of dead or dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas,
recent clearings, beaver swamps, orchards, parks, farmland, grasslands
with scattered trees, forest edges, and roadsides. During the start
of the breeding season they move from forest interiors to forest
edges or disturbed areas. Wherever they breed, dead (or partially
dead) trees for nest cavities are an important part of their habitat.
In the northern part of their winter range, they live in mature
stands of forest, especially oak, oak-hickory, maple, ash, and beech.
In the southern part, they live in pine and pine-oak. They are somewhat
nomadic; in a given location they can be common one year and absent
Red-headed Woodpeckers eat insects, fruits, and seeds. Overall,
they eat about one-third animal material (mostly insects) and two-thirds
plant material. Their insect diet includes beetles, cicadas, midges,
honeybees, and grasshoppers. They are one of the most skillful flycatchers
among the North American woodpeckers (their closest competition
is the Lewiss Woodpecker). They typically catch aerial insects
by spotting them from a perch on a tree limb or fencepost and then
flying out to grab them. Red-headed Woodpeckers eat seeds, nuts,
corn, berries and other fruits; they sometimes raid bird nests to
eat eggs and nestlings; they also eat mice and occasionally adult
birds. They forage on the ground and up to 30 feet above the forest
floor in summer, whereas in the colder months they forage higher
in the trees. In winter Red-headed Woodpeckers catch insects on
warm days, but they mostly eat nuts such as acorns, beech nuts,
and pecans. Red-headed Woodpeckers cache food by wedging it into
crevices in trees or under shingles on houses. They store live grasshoppers,
beech nuts, acorns, cherries, and corn, often shifting each item
from place to place before retrieving and eating it during the colder
Number of Broods
Condition at Hatching
Both partners help build the nest, though the male does most
of the excavation. He often starts with a crack in the wood, digging
out a gourd-shaped cavity usually in 1217 days. The cavity
is about 36 inches across and 816 inches deep. The entrance
hole is about 2 inches in diameter.
The male selects a site for a nest hole; the female may tap
around it, possibly to signal her approval. They nest in dead trees
or dead parts of live treesincluding pines, maples, birches,
cottonwoods, and oaksin fields or open forests with little
vegetation on the ground. They often use snags that have lost most
of their bark, creating a smooth surface that may deter snakes.
Red-headed Woodpeckers may also excavate holes in utility poles,
live branches, or buildings. They occasionally use natural cavities.
Unlike many woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers often reuse a nest
cavity several years in a row.
Red-headed Woodpeckers climb up tree trunks and main limbs like
other woodpeckers, often staying still for long periods. They are
strong fliers with fairly level flight compared to most woodpeckers.
They often catch insects on the wing. Prospective mates play hide
and seek with each other around dead stumps and telephone
poles, and once mated they may stay together for several years.
Both males and females perform aggressive bobbing displays by pointing
their heads forward, drooping their wings, and holding their tails
up at an angle. They are territorial during the breeding season
and often aggressive and solitary during the winter. Red-headed
Woodpeckers are quick to pick fights with many other bird species,
including the pushy European Starling and the much bigger Pileated
Woodpecker. Their predators include snakes, foxes, raccoons, flying
squirrels, Coopers Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Eastern Screech-Owls.
Irregular short-distance or partial migrant. Red-headed Woodpeckers
usually leave the northern and western parts of their range for
winter, but where they go depends on acorn and beech nut crops.
During migration seasons they may wander widely in loose flocks
(possibly family groups), moving during daytime in the fall and
nighttime in the spring.
status via IUCN
Red-headed Woodpeckers declined by over 2% per year from 1966
to 2014, resulting in a cumulative decline of 70%, according to
the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates
a global breeding population of 1.2 million, with 99% spending part
of the year in the U.S., and 1% in Canada. The species rates a 13
out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Red-headed Woodpecker
is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species
that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation
action. The species is also listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN
Red List. These woodpeckers were common to abundant in the nineteenth
century, probably because the continent had more mature forests
with nut crops and dead trees. They were so common that orchard
owners and farmers used to pay a bounty for them, and in 1840 Audubon
reported that 100 were shot from a single cherry tree in one day.
In the early 1900s, Red-headed Woodpeckers followed crops of beech
nuts in northern beech forests that are much less extensive today.
At the same time, the great chestnut blight killed virtually all
American chestnut trees and removed another abundant food source.
Red-headed Woodpeckers may now be more attuned to acorn abundance
than to beech nuts. Though the species was common in towns and cities
a century ago, it began declining in urban areas as people started
felling dead trees and trimming branches. After the loss of nut-producing
trees, perhaps the biggest factor limiting Red-headed Woodpeckers
is the availability of dead trees in their open-forest habitats.
Management programs that create and maintain snags and dead branches
may help Red-headed Woodpeckers. Although they readily excavate
nests in utility poles, a study found that eggs did not hatch and
young did not fledge when the birds nested in newer poles (34
years old), possibly because of the creosote used to preserve them.
In the middle twentieth century Red-headed Woodpeckers were quite
commonly hit by cars as the birds foraged for aerial insects along