The red-headed woodpecker is aptly named for its spectacular plumage, but this bird is equally distinctive in diet and behavior, standing out from many other woodpeckers and making itself a fine addition to any birder’s life list.
Red-Headed Woodpecker, Patriotic Bird, Redhead, Tri-Colored Woodpecker, Flag Bird
- Bill: Large, thick, straight, black or gray-black
- Size: 9 inches long with 17-inch wingspan, round head, broad wings
- Colors: Red, white, blue-black, black, gray-black, brown
- Markings: Genders are similar with a glossy red hood that covers the head, neck, throat and upper breast. The underparts are plain white, and the back is black or blue-black. The wings are black but the white secondary feathers form a broad white triangular patch when the bird is perched, and are also visible as a broad white patch in flight. The rump is white and the tail is black. Legs and feet are gray-black, and the eyes are dark.
Juveniles are dusky-brown with white underparts that may show some faint brown streaking. They have the same broad white triangular patch on the secondary feathers, but it is marked with brown bars. Juvenile birds will not have their full mature plumage until their second autumn.
Insects, spiders, eggs, nuts, berries, mice (See: Omnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These woodpeckers prefer open deciduous woodlands, particularly where oak and beech trees are abundant. They are more often found in the woodland edges than in the deep forest, and they are also found in wooded swamps, orchards, recent burn areas, agricultural areas and suburbs where mature trees are plentiful.
The year-round range of the red-headed woodpecker extends from eastern Iowa and southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to northeastern Texas and northern Louisiana, east to central Florida and all along the Atlantic coast, though they are more rare in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains. In summer, this bird’s breeding range extends further west and north as far as eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as the southern parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and east to New York and Pennsylvania. In winter, the non-breeding range extends only slightly to include more territory in southern Texas and Louisiana.
Vagrant sightings of red-headed woodpeckers are rare but still regularly reported outside its expected range, typically further west than these birds would be traditionally found.
These are relatively loud woodpeckers. In addition to a fast, rapid drumming that lasts 1-2 seconds in a series, they have a raspy “churrr-churrr” call that can be heard from considerable distances.
These woodpeckers are typically solitary but may be found in pairs during the breeding season. In winter, they will occasionally join foraging flocks with other woodpeckers, even feeding on the same tree as other species. During the breeding season, however, these are one of the most aggressive woodpeckers and will attack intruders in their territory, chase them away or even destroy the eggs and nests of other birds they consider to be a threat.
While foraging, red-headed woodpeckers do not drill into trees to extract insects, but they will glean along bark to seek insects. They also frequently forage in flight, catching insects in the air and returning to a perch to eat. They will cache nuts, even covering their storage spaces with bark to hide them from other birds.
Red-headed woodpeckers are monogamous and both male and female birds work together to drill out a suitable nest cavity positioned from 8-80 feet above the ground, preferring to work on dead trees with little bark remaining. The entrance hole averages 1.75” in diameter, and the same nest cavity may be reused for several years.
The oval-shaped eggs are plain white, and there will be 3-8 eggs in a brood. A mated pair may raise 1-2 broods per year, with both parents sharing incubation duties for 12-14 days. After the eggs hatch, both parents care for the altricial young for an additional 30 days.
Attracting Red-Headed Woodpeckers:
These woodpeckers are not frequent backyard visitors, but they will visit backyard feeders occasionally when suet, black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn or nuts are available. They will occasionally use large bird houses, and if bird-friendly landscaping includes mature beech or oak trees and dead snags, these birds will be much more likely to visit.
Red-headed woodpeckers are not federally threatened, but they have been declared endangered in several states due to declining numbers and disappearing nesting populations. Habitat loss is a key factor in population declines, and habitat management that removes dead trees is also harmful because nesting sites are removed. These birds are also at risk from European starlings that usurp nesting cavities, limiting the woodpecker’s breeding success.