Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

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Red-headed woodpecker on tree branch
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Red-headed woodpecker fact file

Red-headed woodpecker description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPiciformes
FamilyPicidae
GenusMelanerpes (1)

As its common name suggests, the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) can be instantly recognised by its bright red head. The red colouration extends onto the neck and upper breast, and contrasts with the white underparts, white rump and black back (2) (4) (5) (6), which has a slightly greenish or bluish tinge (2) (4). There is a large white patch on the wings, and the tail is black. The red-headed woodpecker has a light grey or whitish beak, and olive-grey legs and feet (2) (4).

The unique colouration of the red-headed woodpecker has earned it nicknames such as ‘redhead’, ‘flag bird’ and ‘patriotic bird’ (2) (5).

Although the red-headed woodpecker is easily recognisable, the male and female are indistinguishable (2) (4). Juvenile red-headed woodpeckers lack the red head of the adult, instead having a greyish-brown head and a largely brown, grey and white body, with large white wing patches (2) (4) (5) (6).

The red-headed woodpecker uses a variety of calls, including a range of chirping and cackling notes, as well as drumming (2). It often calls with a ‘churr’ or ‘tchur(2) (4), and may give a rising ‘queery’ note and a stuttered ‘uh-chuh’ in social situations (3). The alarm calls of this species have been described as ‘KRIT-tar-rah’ or ‘QUARR-QUARR-QUARR(2) (4).

Also known as
flag bird, flying checker-board, half-a-shirt, jellycoat, patriotic bird, redhead, redheaded woodpecker, shirt-tail bird, tricolored woodpecker, white-shirt.
Size
Length: 19 - 23.5 cm (2)
Wingspan: c. 43.2 cm (3)
Weight
56 - 91 g (2)
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Red-headed woodpecker biology

The red-headed woodpecker is one of the most omnivorous woodpeckers in North America, taking a wide variety of plant and animal food (2). It generally eats a higher proportion of animal matter in the spring, while a largely herbivorous diet, mostly comprising nuts, is more common during winter (2) (4) (7).

The open habitats preferred by the red-headed woodpecker provide it with ample space for flycatching (6) (7), and this species is one of the most accomplished flycatchers in the Picidae family, darting out from a perch to capture any flying insects in its path (2) (4). It also drills into dead wood in search of prey, plucks prey items from vegetation, or takes food from the ground. The diet of the red-headed woodpecker includes a wide range of insects and other invertebrates, as well as various fruits, berries, seeds and nuts. It may also take bird eggs, nestlings and mice (2) (4) (5) (8).

The red-headed woodpecker is unusual in being one of only four woodpecker species that commonly stores or ‘caches’ food, often in crevices, tree cavities, or under bark (2) (4) (8). This species is also the only woodpecker known to cover its stored food with bark or wood (2) (4).

A highly territorial species, the red-headed woodpecker can be aggressive in defending its nesting area and food storage sites. It also shows territorial behaviour against other species, such as the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) (2) (7).

The nest of the red-headed woodpecker is usually built in a dead tree, branch, stump, or even in a telephone pole or fence post, between 1.5 and 24 metres above the ground. The hole may be excavated by the woodpecker or may be an existing cavity, and is usually about 20 to 60 centimetres deep (2) (4) (5) (8). A breeding pair of red-headed woodpeckers may use the same cavity over a number of years (2) (4) (8).

The red-headed woodpecker is monogamous, with breeding pairs often staying together for several years (2). This species breeds between April and August, although most egg-laying occurs from May to June (2) (5). The female red-headed woodpecker lays 4 to 7 eggs, which are incubated by both the male and female for 12 to 14 days (2) (4) (8). Both adults care for the young, which usually fledge after about 24 to 27 days (2) (8). Breeding pairs in the south of the range may raise two broods a year (2) (4) (8).

The red-headed woodpecker can breed from a year old (2), and has been recorded living up to at least ten years of age (5).

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Red-headed woodpecker range

The red-headed woodpecker is common throughout the central and eastern United States, from Montana to the Atlantic coast, and south to the Gulf of Mexico (2) (3) (7) (8). It is also found in the extreme south of Canada (2) (7) (8).

Over its large range, the migratory patterns of the red-headed woodpecker are complex. Some northern populations migrate south in the autumn, while other populations are more sedentary (2) (3) (7). However, the movements of this species are thought to be influenced by yearly patterns of food and habitat availability (5), particularly the abundance of nuts such as acorns and beechnuts (2). In the past, the red-headed woodpecker’s movements were influenced by the nut crops of the now non-existent northern beech (Fagus) forests (7).

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Red-headed woodpecker habitat

This species is found in a variety of habitats, including forests, particularly of oak or beech, as well as grassland, open woodland, and areas of dead or dying trees (2) (4) (5) (7). The red-headed woodpecker also inhabits orchards, parks, golf courses, pastures, agricultural land, rural gardens and urban areas (2) (4) (7).

The red-headed woodpecker usually prefers lowland and cut or burned forest, thriving in open groves and understory where trees are scattered over fields (5) (7). It generally requires at least a few dead trees or large, dead branches in which to nest and roost, and open areas in which to forage (2) (4) (7).

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Red-headed woodpecker status

The red-headed woodpecker is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1)

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Red-headed woodpecker threats

In the past, the red-headed woodpecker has fluctuated between periods of abundance and near-extinction (2). Its population has steadily declined since the 1960s, most notably in Florida and the Great Lakes region (7).

The main threat to the red-headed woodpecker is likely to be habitat loss and degradation, due to clear-cutting, agricultural development, fire suppression, and the disposal of dead trees and branches from urban areas, which reduces nesting sites (2) (4) (7) (8). Further threats to this species come from collisions with cars and reductions in its food sources, for example a decrease in nut availability associated with the loss of beech trees. Historically, the red-headed woodpecker was shot for its bright plumage and to protect agricultural fields and utility poles, but this persecution is now minimal (2) (4) (7).

Although competition with the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) for nest holes was thought to play a role in the decline of the red-headed woodpecker (2) (4) (5), the magnitude of its effects remains uncertain (9). Where the red-headed woodpecker nests in utility poles treated with creosote, nestling survival may be reduced (2) (4).

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Red-headed woodpecker conservation

The red-headed woodpecker occurs in a number of protected areas across its range, but there are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for this species (7). However, a number of measures have been proposed, based on the red-headed woodpecker’s need for dead trees for nesting and roosting, and for open areas for flycatching (2) (4) (7) (8).

The most important conservation measure for the red-headed woodpecker would be the creation or maintenance of dead trees and branches. Dead trees should be retained if possible, preferably in groups, while dead branches should be left in rural areas or only selectively removed if hazardous in urban areas. Furthermore, selective thinning in woods and prescribed burning may improve habitat for the red-headed woodpecker by thinning the understory and creating dead snags for roosting and nesting. Managers should keep in mind, however, that prescribed fires also destroy existing nest sites (2) (4) (7) (8).

Continued monitoring of the red-headed woodpecker’s population trends and the rate of habitat loss has also been recommended (7), together with further studies into the biology and behaviour of this colourful woodpecker (2).

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Find out more

Find out more about the red-headed woodpecker and its conservation:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Herbivorous
Having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Omnivorous
Feeding on both plants and animals.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Smith, K.G., Withgott, J.H. and Rodewald, P.G. (2000) Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/518
  3. Floyd, T. (2008) Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
  4. National Audubon Society - Red-headed woodpecker (May, 2011)
    http://birds.audubon.org/species/redwoo
  5. Terres, J.K. (1987) The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  6. Sibley, D.A. (2003) The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  7. BirdLife International (May, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=574
  8. NatureServe Explorer - Melanerpes erythrocephalus (May, 2011)
    http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Melanerpes+erythrocephalus
  9. Ingold, D.J. (1994) Influence of nest-site competition between European starlings and woodpeckers. Wilson Bulletin, 106(2): 227-241.
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Red-headed woodpecker on tree branch  
Red-headed woodpecker on tree branch

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