Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus
by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.
Although it evolved much earlier, fossils of this Red-headed Woodpecker indicate that this beauty was living in Florida 1.6-2.0 million years ago along with saber-tooth tiger, mastodon, giant armadillo, and camel, eons before humans ever wandered into Florida.1 First humans whose traces indicate they were here ~14,000 years ago must have revered these beauties, the abundant and most common woodpecker. In 1840 “over 100 reported shot from one cherry tree in a single day!”2 How elegant they are with their brilliant red head (genders indistinguishable), white belly, and bold black and white “coat-tails” wing pattern! They drum into bark and trees without getting a headache! Their tree drumming and foraging is aided by zygodactyl feet (2 toes forward, 2 backward) that enables them to grasp the tree’s bark securely. Their strong rectrices (long, stiff and pointed tail feathers) act like a steadying third support of a tripod while they drill, store acorns, or capturing insects.2
These fascinating birds build their cavity nests high (average 40 feet) in tall snags or dead branching trunks. Their nest is not lined with down feathers like most birds do (woodpeckers uniquely do not have down, even the young) nor is the nest reused. Both partners excavate the nest cavity in spring, except in Florida where they begin mating (as on cover photograph by John Middleton), nesting in February, with a second and possibly third brood as late as July even while they are still feeding fledglings. Fortunately, many bird species use and depend upon these Woodpeckers’ discarded nest holes each year for raising their young.2
The most omnivorous North American Woodpecker, the Red-headed is particularly an expert flycatcher and, during breeding season, at ground level, gathers lush caterpillars and insects for its young, and in summer months forages for fruits, berries, corn, birds’ eggs and nestlings, even mice. Early settlers probably observed this species that is only one of four woodpeckers in all the world’s 233 Woodpecker species to store nuts (mostly oak acorn and beechnuts), hide them by covering them with bark on the ground, to later recover and insert them in bark crevices so tightly that even Blue Jays can’t extract them.2 So, in winter they depend upon their cached acorns and seeds. In Florida, most are residents though in Northern States and Canada, Red-headed Woodpeckers migrate, and some may winter in Florida. Because this species relies on forest edges, where trees are less dense with many snags (dead trees), they were most common in the 1800-early 1900s but since then farmers thinking they were pests killed them, developers clear/cut vast tracts of land, and built houses surrounded by sterile grass and concrete while agriculture planted mono-crops to the very fence edges which removed the habitats for insects that all birds need. Thus, they and all birds are declining, especially in Urban areas.
Solution!? Plant Oak and pine trees and native plants in your yard! Leave snags! Bring back our birds!
1Department of State Florida Facts Florida History A Brief History Early Human Inhabitants Early Human Inhabitants
2Frei, B., K. G. Smith, J. H. Withgott, P. G. Rodewald, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2020). Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rehwoo.01