October 2020

Vol. 48, No. 5

Front Cover: October 2020

Red-headed Woodpecker by Edgar Allan Slothman

Edgar Allan Slothman is the pop art persona of Connecticut's award-winning ad agency creative/art director, Don Carter. Inspired by Andy Warhol and Charley Harper — a lifelong love of birds and art come together in his graphic reinterpretations of Audubon's classic Birds of America prints. Don has also illustrated seven children's books, created two interstitial series for Disney Junior and is a creative director with Adams & Knight, an integrated marketing and communications firm in Avon. 

To see the rest of the Audubon 2.0 series, go to <>

Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is a strikingly colored bird that has long been a favorite among birders. Males and females are identical in plumage, a brilliant collage of red, black, and white. The entire head is a hood of crimson red that extends all the way down the neck and throat. The back and tail are black and the underparts white. Large white wing patches extend across the lower back and rump. In flight, the upperwing is black except for the white secondary and tertial feathers; the entire inner half of the under wing is white. Juveniles resemble adults but the hood is brown, there is some black in the secondaries, and they have faint streaking below. The white band of the secondaries and rump and the entire bright red head of this middle-sized woodpecker separate it from all other North American woodpeckers. The Red-headed Woodpecker is monotypic, although there is geographic variation in size, and western birds occasionally have red-tinged bellies.

The breeding range of the Red-headed Woodpecker covers all but a few spots in the eastern United States and extends into southern Canada in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The western edge of the range follows a diagonal from Montana through eastern Texas. Birds in the northern part of the range and much of the western part are migratory, wintering in the eastern United States to central Texas. Winter migration is variable and largely dependent on local mast crops. Poor mast crops promote migration. In Massachusetts, the Red-headed Woodpecker is an irregular, rare, and local breeder; an uncommon to rare migrant; and an occasional winter bird. Historically, its occurrence in the Northeast has always been variable. Migrant Red-headed Woodpeckers arrive in May and depart in the fall from late September through October.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are monogamous. The pair often remain together for several years and may produce two broods in a season. The call is a shrill churr churr, and they give various alarm, scolding, and rasping aggressive calls. In breeding season males give a variety of repetitive calls that function to attract mates and advertise their territory. Females also vocalize. In courtship, males and females chase each other, uttering loud calls. Both males and females drum and tap—a slow form of drumming that occurs mostly during breeding season and functions in courtship and territorial advertisement. Tapping often occurs near the nest cavity, and dual tapping may occur with the male inside the cavity and the female outside. Drumming frequently accompanies territorial disputes. Drumming may occur on a number of substrates, including trees, houses, telephone poles, metal roofs, and siding. Both sexes give aggressive displays with head held forward, wings drooping, and tail erect, and both sexes are pugnacious. They attack starlings or other species in addition to conspecifics that invade their territory both in the breeding season and during winter. In winter, Red-headed Woodpeckers, even juveniles, tend to be solitary and defend smaller territories.

Red-headed Woodpeckers prefer forest edge with open spaces for nesting. The male selects the nest site, usually in a dead tree or the dead part of a living tree, either deciduous or coniferous. Sometimes they nest in odd places, such as telephone poles or farm buildings. The male does most of the excavation, but the female increasingly helps as the cavity progresses. They may excavate a cavity up to two feet deep and often use the same cavity for several seasons. The nest is lined with wood chips. Both parents develop a brood patch and both incubate the variable clutch that averages five white eggs for about two weeks until hatching. The hatchlings are altricial—helpless— with their eyes closed at hatching. Both parents feed the young for nearly a month until fledging. The young birds can fly and feed themselves soon after leaving the nest, although the parents continue to feed them unless they start a second brood, in which case they drive the young birds away.

The Red-headed Woodpecker is the most versatile forager among North American woodpeckers. It is one of four woodpecker species world-wide that stores food, caching insects and nuts in crevices in fence posts, cavities in dead trees, or under bark. They are the only woodpecker species to cover their stored food, usually with strips of bark. They sometimes defend their storage sites and may retrieve their stored food and re-cache it in a new location. These versatile feeders forage on both living and dead trees, glean bark, frequently hawk flying insects, and pounce on ground-dwelling prey. Their diet includes such plant materials as acorns and other nuts, seeds, corn, fruit, and sap. Their animal prey is mostly invertebrates, including grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, and earthworms. They also take bird eggs and nestlings, the occasional adult bird, and even mice. In winter, their diet consists mostly of acorns, beechnuts, and other mast; they will also come to suet feeders.

The Red-headed Woodpecker has experienced severe population declines since the early twentieth century. Human factors that have caused this decline include high mortality from collisions with automobiles, competition with the human-introduced European Starling, and the drastic alteration of their historical habitat. There was a period of increase in mid-century when the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease provided an abundance of dead trees, but the decline began again and has continued into the twenty-first century. Breeding Bird Survey data indicate an annual population decline of 2.6% per year from 1970–2014, reducing the population level to one-third of the 1970 numbers. Conservation measures are clearly needed if future generations of birders are to enjoy this gorgeous woodpecker species.

William E. Davis, Jr.

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