Red-headed Woodpecker

Common Name: Red-headed Woodpecker.

Scientific Name: Melanerpes Erythrocephalus.

What to look for?  Gorgeous, eye-catching plumage! Bright crimson or red head. Black back sitting on top of its white underparts. Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly large, rounded crimson heads. They have powerful, spike-like bills. Their black wings have large white patches. And they have short, stiff tails.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Look up in your trees in your yards and the woodlands north and west of Carillon Stonegate Pond. You may see one hitched to the trunk of a tree. You can find Red-headed Woodpeckers around here most of the year.

How big are they? The Red-headed Woodpecker averages around eight inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately 16 inches. They weigh in at around 2 ½ ounces.

What are their flight patterns? Unlike most woodpeckers that have a more characteristic undulating (rising up and down) flight pattern, Red-headed Woodpeckers are strong fliers with fairly level flight compared to most other woodpeckers.

How else do they behave? You may sometimes see Red-headed Woodpeckers wedge nuts into bark crevices, then hammer them with their bill into smaller pieces. They also use cracks in trees trunks and branches to store food for later in the year. These birds often stick to main branches and trunks of trees, where they hitch in classic woodpecker fashion, leaning away from the trunk and onto their stiff tail feathers as they visually search for food hiding in bark crevices. They also “drum” or rapidly hammer loudly against a tree trunk. This “drumming” behavior is used to attract a mate and to defend territory.

What’s for dinner? Red-headed Woodpeckers eat insects, fruits, and seeds. Overall, they eat about one-third animal material (mostly insects) and two-thirds plant material. In addition to catching insects by the normal woodpecker method of hammering at wood, Red-headed Woodpeckers also catch insects in flight. As one of the most skillful flycatchers among the North American woodpeckers, they typically catch aerial insects by spotting them from a perch on a tree limb and then flying out to grab them.

Where do they take up residence? Red-headed Woodpeckers can be found throughout the central and eastern United States and southern Canada, if the habitat is right. This is the quintessential American bird as 99% of all Red-headed Woodpeckers reside in the U.S. They are a somewhat nomadic species - they can be common one year and absent the next. Their locations are influenced by the abundance of nuts - their favorite winter food -  rather than time of year. 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.

What is their conservation status? Red-headed Woodpeckers are not doing particularly well - anywhere. Since 1966, there has been a cumulative decline of 70% in their population, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This magnificent species has declined severely in the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to its food supply. Partners in Flight estimates a breeding population of only 1.2 million. Both Illinois and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognize the Red-headed Woodpecker as a species in need of conservation.

When and where do they breed and nest? The Red-headed Woodpecker is a cavity nester, dependent on snags and dead and dying tree limbs for nests as well as food sources. They nest in dead trees (hardwoods or pines) and dead limbs of live trees. Unlike many woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers often reuse a nest cavity several years in a row. Pairs may remain together for several years. Red-headed Woodpeckers are fierce defenders of their territory.

Where do they migrate? Red-headed Woodpeckers are short-distance migrants, not known to travel south of United States. During migration seasons, they move during daytime in the fall and nighttime in the spring. Some Red-headed Woodpeckers are probably permanent residents but others, especially from northern and western areas, travel to wintering areas in the southeastern U.S.

What is their conservation status? There is of concern and on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Red-headed Woodpecker has seen decreases in populations. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.8 million.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Red-headed Woodpeckers give all kinds of chirps, cackles, and other raucous calls. Their most common call is a high-pitched shrill “tchur”. Here is a link to the sounds of a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Interesting Facts About the Red-headed Woodpecker:

  • The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of only four North American woodpeckers known to store food and hide insects and seeds in cracks in wood and under bark.

  • 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 “deadwood” for many nest sites and foraging opportunities for the woodpeckers.

  • The Red-headed Woodpecker has many nicknames, including the flying checker-board.

  • Pleistocene-age fossils of Red-headed Woodpeckers—up to 2 million years old—have been unearthed in Illinois.

  • They make an appearance in Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha”, telling how a grateful Hiawatha gave the bird its crimson head in thanks for its service.

  • The oldest Red-headed Woodpecker on record was approximately ten years old.

For more information on the Red-headed Woodpecker and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society and eBird.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.

Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!