Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
Description: 10″ (25 cm) ADULT Has mainly black back, tail, and upper wings, with white patch on tertials and rump. Head and neck are bright red and are separated from white underparts by narrow black border. Has a dark eye and rather pale gray and darker tipped bill. JUVENILE Has red and black elements of adult’s plumage replaced by brown. Underparts are whitish with dark streaks, and pale tertials have brown barring.
Voice: Red-headed Woodpeckers give all kinds of chirps, cackles, and other raucous calls. Their most common call is a shrill, hoarse tchur, like a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s but higher-pitched and less rolling. When chasing each other they make shrill charr-charr notes.
Habitat: 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 the next.
Nesting: 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 12–17 days. The cavity is about 3–6 inches across and 8–16 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 trees—including pines, maples, birches, cottonwoods, and oaks—in 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.
- 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 Longfellow’s 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 Woodpeckers—up to 2 million years old—have been unearthed in Florida, Virginia, and Illinois.
- The Red-headed Woodpecker was the “spark bird” (the bird that starts a person’s 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.
Resource material provided by:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology/ http://www.allaboutbirds.com