This medium-sized woodpecker of about 20 cm has striking colours with a deep red head and upper breast, black top feathers with a large white wing patch and underbelly. Males and females are almost indistinguishable from one another, and juvenile colouring is more dull-their heads range from brownish-grey to dull red. Their bellies have white plumage with variable amounts of darker streaks. The Red-headed Woodpecker’s call is distinctive with a single loud “kwee-arr”, or in bursts. They also make a chattering “kerr-r-ruck” sound.
Red-headed Woodpeckers have an expansive omnivorous diet. They will drill into decaying trees for grubs, or snap up spiders, earthworms, nuts and berries. They have also been known to eat eggs and nestlings of other birds, lizards, and dead fish. During summer months they dive off branches to feed on insects in the air. In the winter they historically fed on mast like acorns and beechnuts, and more recently, corn or grains from agricultural fields. Recent research suggests they may also feed on the invasive and damaging Emerald Ash Borer larvae. Unlike most woodpeckers, the Red-headed Woodpecker will store food in caches around their breeding sites, typically within crevices of decaying trees. This behaviour inadvertently plays an important role in spreading seeds.
Biology and Behaviour:
The Red-headed Woodpecker’s breeding and nesting season starts during the second week of May, and ends around the third week of August. An average of four eggs are laid at a time, and they are incubated for about two weeks, followed by up to four more weeks in the nest. Both parents help with incubation and feeding. Eggs and nestlings can be predated by snakes, raccoons, and other mammals. The adult woodpeckers will fiercely defend their nest, food caches, and territory against other bird species as well as other woodpeckers. They have a slow recruitment rate, and high predation which exacerbates their vulnerability to external threats.
Predators of adult Red-headed Woodpeckers include raptors like Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and Eastern Screech Owls. They are also preyed on by Red Foxes, Raccoons, and Flying Squirrels.
Adult Red-headed Woodpeckers are quite distinct, but the young may be confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker, which has striped upper feathers, or the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which has a more detailed pattern and does not have a solid red head.
Conservation and recovery strategies:
This woodpecker provides several essential ecological roles. As a primary excavator, it digs cavities in trees, which can later be used by an array of bird species, amphibians, and insects. Cavity excavation helps trees continue their natural cycle as they decay, fall, and become coarse woody material for other species to use. They also help regenerate beech and oak trees as their caches help disperse seeds.
The population of Red-headed Woodpeckers has declined substantially in Ontario, with a 60% loss in just two decades. Long-term recovery of the Red-headed Woodpecker will require cooperation from landowners, government, and industry. Forest managers should incorporate more complexity in their stands, and leave snags whenever feasible. Government, with the support of the public, could limit development in key habitat areas. Standards for forest management could also be implemented- for instance, requiring that dead wood be left alone. Government-funded research could address the spread of Beech Bark Disease, and potential control measures for European Starlings. Re-introducing controlled burns to the landscape would not only help woodpeckers, but also many other species.
- Woodpeckers have cool adaptations to allow them to drill into trees: a feather flap stops wood chips from getting into their nostrils, and their tongue is long and barbed so they can reach into crevices for larvae and insects
- The Red-headed Woodpecker is known to viciously defend their territory against other birds. They may even destroy eggs or nests from other species
- They are one of the most easily recognizable bird species because of their bright red head
Bezener, A. 2000. Birds of Ontario. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton.
Cadman, M.D., D.A. Sutherland, G.G. Beck, D. Lepage, and A.R. Couturier (eds.). 2007. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature. Toronto, xxii + 706 pp.
COSEWIC. 2018. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalusin Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. (http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=en&n=24F7211B-1 ).
Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2019. Recovery Strategy for the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) in Canada [Proposed]. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ottawa. viii + 118 pp (https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/species-risk-registry/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs%5Fred%5Fheaded%5Fwoodpecker%5Fe%5Fproposed%2Epdf )
Hughes, J.M. 2001. The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario. The Royal Ontario Museum and McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto.
Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks. 2019. Species at Risk: Red-headed Woodpecker. (https://www.ontario.ca/page/red-headed-woodpecker).
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