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18 Facts About Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Red-headed woodpeckers are charismatic birds that bring a pop of color to forests and woodlands. With their striking appearance and interesting habits, there’s a lot more to these birds than meets the eye. Let’s dive into some fascinating facts about these vibrant woodpeckers.

1. All Adults Have The Same Plumage

It’s hard to miss the red-headed woodpecker with its vibrant, completely head, neck, and upper breast. While they sport the typical black and white body of most woodpeckers, instead of bars or speckles, they have solid blocks of color.

Their wings are black with a large white patch, and their underparts are completely white. In most woodpecker species, males and females have slight variations in plumage. This usually involves the male having a patch of red somewhere the female doesn’t. However for red-headed woodpeckers, both makes and females look exactly the same. 

2. They are mainly birds of the eastern U.S.

The year-round range for the red-headed woodpecker includes most of the eastern half of the country. They only tend to be seen in New York, New Jersey, lower New England and around the Great Lakes during the spring and summer breeding season. They also extend out into the Dakotas, Nebraska and western Wyoming during the summer. Meanwhile, some parts of the Gulf and middle Texas only tend to see them in the winter.

3. Red-headed Woodpeckers often follow nut crops

While some birds stick to a specific territory, red-headed woodpeckers are more nomadic. They’re known to wander extensively, especially during winter and migration times, in search of food. This behavior adds to their allure, making their sightings more unpredictable. They travel wherever acorn and beech nut crops are most available.

4. They exhibit interesting migration strategies

While some red-headed woodpeckers reside in areas year-round, others embark on short seasonal migrations. Since food is often their main driver, their migrations and be irregular. During these migration times, they may travel together in loose flocks or family groups. In the fall, they tend to do their traveling during the daytime while in spring they travel more at night.

juvenile red headed woodpecker
Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker at suet feeder | image by Joseph Gage via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

5. Juveniles don’t start out with a red head

Young red-headed woodpeckers can be difficult to identify, because they aren’t born with that easily recognizable red head. Their head and upper back are grayish-brown. As they age you will slowly start to see red patches appear on the head. The large white wing patch is still present and is a good identifier, however it will have two black bars running across it that will slowly fade to pure white as they get older. 

6. Red-headed woodpeckers have an omnivorous diet

Red-headed woodpeckers have a mixed diet of insects, fruits and seeds. For insects they often choose cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers and even bees. Animal protein, like mice and other birds, is sometime taken but much more rare. Large nuts like acorns, beech nuts and pecans make up a lot of their winter diet. 

7. Red-headed woodpecker create food stores

These woodpeckers create food reserves to sustain them during cold weather or scarcity. They collect beech nuts, corn, cherries, acorns and even live grasshoppers, among other foods, and tightly wedge them into tree crevices. They’ve even been known to use wooden house shingles as a storage spot! Interestingly, they may move these food stores several times before actually eating them. 

Red-headed woodpecker feeding
Red-headed woodpecker feeding | image by Ken Gibson via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

8. You can attract red-headed woodpeckers to your yard

Overall, this species doesn’t visit backyard feeders as readily as some other woodpeckers. However if they happen to be in your area, especially during the winter, they may come for suet, large nuts, cracked corn or fruits. Having a suet feeder and a platform of larger nut pieces and corn is a good way to attempt to lure them in.

9. They drum on hard surfaces to scare off intruders.

Woodpeckers are known for making a jackhammer-like drilling sound called drumming. The drumming sound is created by the rapid and repetitive tapping of the woodpecker’s beak against the hard surface, producing a distinctive and often loud drumming noise.

Unlike the pecking they do to find food or create a nest hole, drumming in a controlled sound used to communicate between woodpeckers for things like mating and claiming their territory. Red-headed woodpeckers will drum on any hard surface that will carry the drumming sound far, such as trees, metal roofs, stovepipes and utility poles.

10. They nest in dead trees or dead parts of live trees.

Males choose the site for the nest hole. Sometimes females are observed tapping around the hole, perhaps to signal their approval. They prefer to choose their nest site in forests with not much vegetation on the ground, often using dead trees that have lost most of their bark. Red-headed woodpeckers prefer to excavate their own holes, but may sometimes use a natural cavity. While many woodpecker species don’t return for a second year to a nest hole, the red-headed woodpecker may use the same nest cavity for many years. 

red headed woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker bringing a blackberry back to the nest | image by Jim Hudgins/USFWS via Flickr

11. Males and Females Work Together On the Nest Cavity

Both partners work on digging out the nest hole, although males do the majority of the excavating. Their nest cavity is slimmer on top, then opens to a larger chamber. Cavities are about 3 – 6 inches across, 8 – 16 inches deep, and are created over 2-3 weeks of work. 

12. Red-headed Woodpeckers have up to ten babies at a time

One to two broods are had per year, with 3 to 10 eggs per brood. Eggs are incubated for two weeks before hatching, then the young woodpeckers remain in the nest for up to 31 days before fledging. 

13. Red-headed Woodpeckers are aerial insect catchers

Rather than picking all their insects off of tree bark or from drilling into trees, these woodpeckers will chase flying insects on-the-wing. They are considered one of the most skilled flycatchers of all the North American woodpecker species. From a perch they watch for insects to fly close-by, then fly out to snatch them from the air. 

Red-headed woodpecker with its insect catch
Red-headed woodpecker with its insect catch | image by USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr

14. They play “hide and seek” during courtship

During courtship, males and females may engage in a behavior a bit like hide and seek, chasing each other around tree trunks and stumps. Once a mated pair is formed, it is believed that they will stay monogamous for several breeding seasons. 

15. They are mainly solitary birds

Red-headed woodpeckers are generally solitary birds. During the spring and summer months, the male and female pair stay together but aggressively defend their breeding territories from intruders, including other red-headed woodpeckers. While they may travel in a loose group during spring and fall migration, the group is small and even within the group they give each other space. They still hold on to some defensiveness when it comes to defending good winter food sources. 

16. Their population was higher in the 19th century

While they are not considered endangered today, red-headed woodpeckers are on the yellow watch list for species that require consistent monitoring and are at risk for continued decline. Historical records indicate they were quite abundant during the 1800’s, perhaps because there were more mature forests with nut bearing trees and greater availability of dead stands for nesting.

Also, they used to rely partly on American chestnut trees for food, so the great chestnut blight of the early 1900’s that wiped out most of these trees removed one of their main food sources. On the flip side, it did provide an increase in dead tree stands for use in nesting. 

red headed woodpecker perched
red-headed woodpecker

17. Red-headed woodpecker are at least 2 million years old!

Fossil records of red-headed woodpeckers have been found in Virginia, Florida and Illinois that show this species was present in the Pleistocene age, up to 2 million years ago! 

18. Red-headed woodpeckers plumage has earned them several nicknames and historical significance

The unique black, white and red color-block stye of plumage has earned this species many nicknames, including flag bird, flying checker-board, and shirt-tail bird.


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