Friday, March 28, 2014

Red-headed Woodpecker

At World Bird Sanctuary, we recently received a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) that is non releasable.  After keeping an eye on it (we don't know if it is a male or female) throughout a particular day, I realized that I know almost nothing about woodpeckers.  So, I decided that it was time for me to learn.  

Red-headed Woodpecker (

As adults, Red-headed Woodpeckers have bright red heads, black backs, white chests and black wings with large white patches.  This gives them the nickname of the flying checkerboard.  So naturally we named ours "Checkers".  Red-headed Woodpeckers have been around for a very long time.  In fact, in Florida, Virginia and Illinois, Red-headed woodpecker fossils have been found.  Some of them even dated to about 2 million years old!  They can be found all over the eastern United States,  ranging from Montana down to New Mexico, and from Florida up to New Hampshire.  However, the further north you go, the less common they are.  

They live in deciduous woodlands and nest in old dying trees.  Red-headed woodpeckers are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals.  Most of their diet contains different nuts and fruits (Checkers seems to enjoy grapes and peanuts the most).  They will often find insects to eat also.  Ranging from flies to grasshoppers to cicadas, they will eat practically any insect they can find.  And they are very effective at catching them in midair, too.  Rarely they will even eat smaller birds and mice.  

The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of only 4 woodpecker species in the United States that will cache, or save and hide, their food.  This is in case they need the backup food supply.  Commonly they will store live grasshoppers in cracks in trees.  They will wedge the grasshoppers in so tightly that it cannot escape.  These woodpeckers have even been known to store food underneath shingles on peoples' roofs. 

The Red-headed Woodpecker's conservation status is Near Threatened.  This means that if current trends of decline continue, they will likely become endangered.  According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their populations have declined around 2.9% every year, starting around 1966.  In the mid 1840's Red-headed Woodpeckers were so common that some farmers and orchard owners actually paid bounties for them.  Beech forests and chestnut trees are far less common today, which is a major cause in the decline of their populations.  

One way to help out the Red-headed Woodpecker is to make sure that if you have any old dying trees on your property, don't cut them down.  Those are prime foraging and nesting real estate for these beautiful birds.

Submitted by Mike Cerrutti, Trainer.

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