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red-headed woodpecker

Melanerpes erythrocephalus

What do they look like?

Red-headed woodpeckers are sexually monomorphic. This means that males and females look exactly the same. They have bright red heads, necks, throats and shoulders. Their wings and tail are bluish-black. They have a white belly and a large square area of white on their rump. Their bills are long and chisel shaped, which is important for drilling into trees. Young red-headed woodpeckers look similar to adults, but their heads and necks are buffy-brown instead of red.

Red-headed woodpeckers are small compared to other woodpeckers. They are 21 to 25 cm long and have a wingspan of 33 to 37 cm. They weigh about 70 grams.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    70 g
    2.47 oz
  • Average mass
    75 g
    2.64 oz
    AnAge
  • Range length
    21 to 25 cm
    8.27 to 9.84 in
  • Range wingspan
    33 to 37 cm
    12.99 to 14.57 in

Where do they live?

Red-headed woodpeckers are widely distributed throughout most of North America. They range east to west from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and north to south from Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba) and southern Ontario, to Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida. This bird was once common, but is now found only in patches throughout its range.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Red-headed woodpeckers like open woodlands and the edges and clearings near forests. They are often found in woodlands, along rivers, in orchards, parks, open country, savannas and grasslands with scattered trees. In general, they like habitats that have tall, old trees.

In winter, red-headed woodpeckers also live in forests that have large, old trees. Red-headed woodpeckers are found in different areas each winter. They chose to spend the winter wherever there are a lot of acorns and other foods. (Smith, et al., 2000)

How do they reproduce?

Red-headed woodpeckers are probably monogamous. We do not know very much about how males and female form breeding pairs, or how long breeding pairs stay together. Some breeding pairs breed together for several years. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Red-headed woodpeckers nest in tree holes, under roofs of buildings, in fence posts, or in utility poles. They like holes in dead trees the best. The male and female work together to drill out the nest hole. The opening of the hole is usually 5-6 cm wide, but inside the tree the hole gets wider, usually 7-11 cm. They reach 20 to 60 cm into the tree. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Red-headed woodpeckers lay their eggs between April and July. They lay 3 to 10 eggs in each clutch. Both parents incubate the eggs for 12 to 14 days. The chicks are altricial (helpless) when they hatch; they are naked and their eyes are closed for the first 12 to 13 days. Both parents feed and brood the chicks. The chicks leave the nest at 24 to 31 days old. They are strong fliers and can catch their own food soon after fledging. If chicks stay near the nest, the parents chase them away after several weeks. The chicks will are able to breed the next summer.

Red-headed woodpeckers raise one or two broods a year. Breeding pairs may even start laying eggs for a second brood while they are feeding their first brood of chicks. They usually raise the second brood in a new nest hole. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Red-headed woodpeckers have one or two broods a year.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season spans from April to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
    5
  • Average eggs per season
    5
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 to 31 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Male and female red-headed woodpeckers build the nest, incubate the eggs, and feed and brood the chicks. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The oldest known wild red-headed woodpecker lived at least 9 years and 11 months. (Smith, et al., 2000)

How do they behave?

Red-headed woodpeckers are solitary. They defend a territory year-round.

Red-headed woodpeckers spend most of their time looking for food. In autumn, these woodpeckers store food for the winter. They store nuts and insects by pushing into cracks and holes in trees or other wooden objects, such as fence posts.

Most red-headed woodpeckers live in the same area year-round. The red-headed woodpeckers that breed in the northern and western parts of the range migrate south in the fall. Red-headed woodpeckers migrate during the day. They usually fly short distances at a time. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time. The home range of red-headed woodpeckers varies from year to year, depending on food availability.

How do they communicate with each other?

Red-headed woodpeckers communicate using many different calls. They also communicate by drumming on wooden surfaces, such as trees, with their beak. This makes a loud, fast noise. Vocalizations and drumming can be used to communicate many different things. They may be used to defend a territory, to attract a mate, or to communicate between parents. For example a male and female may perform mutual tapping while building the nest. The male taps on the inside of the nest cavity and the female taps on the outside. This is one way that the pair can communicate with each other. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

What do they eat?

Red-headed woodpeckers are omnivorous. They eat many different insects, spiders, earthworms, nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, bark and sometimes small mammals. They also eat eggs and chicks of bluebirds, house sparrows <<Passer domesticus and chickadees.

Red-headed woodpeckers search for food in many different ways. They hunt for flying insects by perching on branches and watching for the insects, then chasing after them. They search for other foods on the ground, or in shrubs. Most woodpeckers drill into wood to find their food. Red-headed woodpeckers do drill into wood to look for food, but they spend more time hunting flying insects.

Red-headed woodpeckers stored food for winter in holes or cavities that they find. They do not drill out cavities to store food in. Instead, they look for cavities, and then break the food up so that it fits into the hole. Sometimes they plug up the hole with woodchips so that other animals don’t eat the food.

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Red-headed woodpeckers adults are eaten by raptors, including Cooper’s hawks, and peregrine falcons. Eastern screech-owls and red foxes also eat adult red-headed woodpeckers.

Snakes, such as black rat snakes and mammals, including raccoons and flying squirrels climb trees to hunt red-headed woodpecker chicks and eggs..

Adult red-headed woodpeckers scold predators by making a “churring” call. (Smith, et al., 2000)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Red-headed woodpeckers affect the plant and animals they eat. For example, they may help to disperse the plants whose seeds they store and eat. Red-headed woodpeckers also creating nest cavities that other birds and mammals depend on. After the red-headed woodpeckers use a nest cavity, other birds and mammals may use it to nest.

Red-headed woodpeckers are food for their predators. They are also a habitat for several different parasites.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
  • creates habitat
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • Cavity nesting birds and mammals

Do they cause problems?

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes feed on cultivated fruits and vegetables. This can cost small farmers.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

This bird is a favorite of birdwatchers and thus provides recreational value to humans.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • ecotourism

Are they endangered?

Red-headed woodpeckers used to be very common in North America. However, they are becoming less common. In the 1890's, European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) were brought to North America from Europe. European starlings became very common. They compete with red-headed woodpeckers for nesting cavities, and make it difficult for red-headed woodpeckers to find a nest site to breed. Red-headed woodpeckers also lose nest sites when people cut down old dead trees.

Red-headed woodpeckers are often killed when they are hit by cars. To make sure that red-headed woodpeckers survive, humans need to protect their habitat and control populations of European starlings.

Red-headed woodpeckers are protected under the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Elizabeth J. Axley (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

References

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Graham, F. 1989. Starling scourge: Red-headed woodpeckers. Audubon, 91: 25-27.

Inglod, D. 1989. Nesting phenology and competition for nest site among red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers and European Starlings. Auk, 106(2): 209-217.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

McNair, D. 1996. Late breeding records of a red headed woodpecker and a summer tanager in Florida. Florida Field Naturalist, 24(3): 78-80.

Smith, K., J. Withgott, P. Rodewald. 2000. Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 518. Philadelphia: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Winkler, H. 1995. Woodpeckers: A guide to the woodpeckers of the world. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Axley, E. 2002. "Melanerpes erythrocephalus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 21, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Melanerpes_erythrocephalus/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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