Photo: Kathleen Johnston/Audubon Photography Awards

Red-headed Woodpecker

Melanerpes erythrocephalus

This striking and unmistakable bird was a favorite of early ornithologists such as Alexander Wilson and Audubon. Often conspicuous because of its strong pattern, harsh calls, and active behavior in semi-open country, it tends to occur in small colonies. Although it migrates only short distances, little groups of migrants may be noticeable in early fall and late spring. Once a very common bird in eastern North America, the Red-headed Woodpecker is now uncommon and local in many regions.
Conservation status Once very common throughout the east, but has been decreasing in numbers for years, and recent surveys show that this trend is continuing. Reasons for decline not well known, probably include loss of potential nest sites (owing to cutting of dead trees), competition with starlings for nest cavities. When swooping out to catch insects in flight, often struck by cars along roadsides.
Family Woodpeckers
Habitat Groves, farm country, orchards, shade trees in towns, large scattered trees. Avoids unbroken forest, favoring open country or at least clearings in the woods. Forest edges, orchards, open pine woods, groves of tall trees in open country are likely habitats. Winter habitats influenced by source of food in fall, such as acorns or beechnuts.
This striking and unmistakable bird was a favorite of early ornithologists such as Alexander Wilson and Audubon. Often conspicuous because of its strong pattern, harsh calls, and active behavior in semi-open country, it tends to occur in small colonies. Although it migrates only short distances, little groups of migrants may be noticeable in early fall and late spring. Once a very common bird in eastern North America, the Red-headed Woodpecker is now uncommon and local in many regions.
Photo Gallery
Feeding Behavior

Opportunistic, with several foraging techniques. Flies out from a perch to catch insects in the air or on ground; climbs tree trunks and major limbs; clambers about in outer branches; hops on ground. Gathers acorns, beechnuts, and other nuts in fall, storing them in holes and crevices, then feeding on them during winter.


Eggs

4-5, sometimes 3-7, rarely more. White. Incubation is by both sexes (with male incubating at night), 12-13 days. Young: Are fed by both parents, and leave the nest at about 27-31 days. Pairs may be starting on a 2nd nesting attempt while still feeding the fledglings from the first; 2nd brood may be raised in same nest but more often in new cavity, freshly excavated. 1 or 2 broods per year.


Young

Are fed by both parents, and leave the nest at about 27-31 days. Pairs may be starting on a 2nd nesting attempt while still feeding the fledglings from the first; 2nd brood may be raised in same nest but more often in new cavity, freshly excavated. 1 or 2 broods per year.

Diet

Omnivorous. Perhaps the most omnivorous of woodpeckers. Diet includes wide variety of insects, also spiders, earthworms, nuts, seeds, berries, wild and cultivated fruit, rarely small rodents. Sometimes eats eggs and nestlings of other birds. Also sometimes eats bark.


Nesting

Male establishes territory and advertises there with calling, drumming. In resident birds, male's winter territory may become breeding territory. Nest: Male's winter roosting cavity may be used for nest, or new cavity may be excavated (mostly by male); female indicates acceptance of site by tapping on tree. Nest cavity is in bare dead tree or dead limb, from a few feet above ground to 65' or higher.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Migration

Some are probably permanent residents but others, especially from northern and western areas, travel to wintering areas in southeastern states. Migrates by day. A short-distance migrant, not known to occur south of United States.

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Migration

Some are probably permanent residents but others, especially from northern and western areas, travel to wintering areas in southeastern states. Migrates by day. A short-distance migrant, not known to occur south of United States.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A loud churr-churr and yarrow-yarrow-yarrow.