Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalusMelanerpes erythrocephalus

The Red-headed Woodpecker occurs east of the Rocky Mountains from extreme southern Canada to the Gulf Coast states.  It is easily identified by its bold red, white and black plumage.   The adults have black backs, upper wing coverts, primaries and black tails.  The breast, belly, and rump are white as are the secondaries which form characteristic white inner wing patches noticeable even when the wings are folded.  It is the only woodpecker east of the Rockies with an entirely red head.  Sexes are alike in this species, a possible adaptation for aggressive nest defense by both sexes (Nichols & Jackson 1987).  Kilham (1978) commented that the sexual similarity of Red-headed Woodpeckers may aid females in establishing and maintaining winter territories on an equal basis with males, which could improve survivorship.

DISTRIBUTION:  The TBBAP records showed confirmed breeding Red-headed Woodpeckers occurred most commonly in eastern Texas and the Texas Panhandle.  Additional possible and probable breeding records exist from the Rio Grande Valley (latilong 25097-H4, “pair seen” and latilongs 26097 and 26099, “species present during breeding season”) and a single possible record from Central Texas (latilong 31099).  Generally, breeding records are rare south of 330 latitude and west of 980 longitude because of a lack of preferred nesting habitat.

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE:  Oberholser (1974) stated that breeding takes place from late February to late August in Texas.  The earliest TBBAP “nest with young” record for the Red-headed Woodpecker is 22 May and the latest is 27 July.  The seasonal movements of Red-headed Woodpeckers are unclear, but they are known to be migratory at least in parts of their range (Kneeskern & Kneeskern 1979).  In eastern Texas, Shackelford and Conner (1996 in prep) showed a seasonal shift in habitat selection for this woodpecker.  They found the Red-headed Woodpecker present in the upland pine savannah during the summer when breeding but completely absent there in winter.  Conversely, the woodpecker was commonly found in the bottomland hardwood forests in the winter and absent in the summer.  The bottomland hardwood forests provide acorns, which are probably an important winter food item (Kilham 1958).

BREEDING HABITAT:  Red-headed Woodpeckers seem to prefer older trees in open stands.  The older trees provide suitable nest sites while the open areas are important to the woodpecker for flycatching and access to the ground for foraging (Conner 1976).   The Red-headed Woodpecker will nest in a variety of hardwood and coniferous tree species as well as utility poles (Jackson 1976, Kilham 1977).  Excavation of the nest cavity is performed by both sexes.  The nests are usually constructed in dead trees or dead portions of living trees.  This woodpecker also seems to favor limbs that are well-weathered and have lost their bark (Jackson 1976, Kilham 1977).  Nest site fidelity is high in this species, where adults often renest in the same tree in consecutive years.  Ingold (1991) documented two male Red-headed Woodpeckers that returned to nest in their respective cavity trees for three consecutive years, which could be due in part to the lack of dead trees for nesting.  Sometimes an old nest is used but most often a new nest is constructed in a dead limb or in a trunk of a dead tree below the nest cavity of the previous year (Jackson 1976, Ingold 1991).

Competition for nest cavities is often high between Red-headed woodpecker and other cavity nesters such as the Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) and the introduced European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (Jackson 1970, Kneeskern & Kneeskern 1979, Ingold 1991).  Red-headed Woodpeckers are very aggressive in nest defense and generally fare well against other species when defending a nest (Ingold 1989a, 1989b).

Red-headed Woodpeckers lay four to seven eggs, usually five, with one egg is laid per day (Harrison 1975).  Incubation lasts about 14 days (Bent 1939).  Jackson (1976) reported that wood chips were provided for the nestlings by pecking chips from the inner walls of the cavity.  The chips were continually added from the time the first egg was laid until three to four days after hatching.  Double brooding (renesting successfully in the same season) has been documented in this species in Kansas (Jackson 1976), Florida (Smith & Layne 1986) and Mississippi (Ingold 1987), but has not been reported in Texas.

STATUS:  The Red-headed Woodpecker has declined in numbers across the United States and in Texas since 1966 (Sauer et al. 1996).  Loss of nesting habitat is likely a major cause of the decline.  Conner (1976) suggested that intensive timber management techniques such as short rotation periods (the time between successive clear-cutting), reduces the chance of trees growing large enough to accommodate nest cavities.  The availability of snags (standing dead trees) is also important to Red-headed Woodpecker nesting (Dickson et al. 1983), but snags have often been viewed as an undesirable feature of the landscape to be removed because of safety and fire hazard concerns (McClelland & Frissell 1975).  Habitat loss in combination with competition with the increasing and expanding European Starling population may continue to keep this woodpecker declining throughout its range.
Text by Daniel Saenz (ca. 1998)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited

Bent, A. C.  1939.  Life histories of North American woodpeckers.  U. S. Natl.Mus. Bull. 174.

Conner, R. N.  1976.  Nesting habitat for Red-headed Woodpeckers in southwestern Virginia.  Bird-banding. 47: 40-43.

Conner, R. N.  1978.  Snag management for cavity nesting birds.  Pp.120-138 in Proc.of the workshop; management of southern forests for nongame birds (R. M. DeGraaf, tech. cood.).   U.S. For. Serv. Gen. Tech. Rep. SE-14.

Dickson, J. G., R. N. Conner, and J. H. Williamson.  1983.  Snag retention increases bird use of a clear-cut.  J. Wildl. Manage. 47: 799-804.

Harrison, H. H.  1975.  Birds’ nests.  Houghton Mifflin.  Boston, MA.

Ingold, D. J.  1987.  Documented double-broodedness in Red-headed Woodpeckers. J. Field Ornithol. 58: 234-235.

Ingold, D. J.  1989a.  Nesting phenology and competition for nest sites among Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and European Starlings.  Auk 106: 209-217.

Ingold, D. J..  1989b.  Woodpecker and European Starling competition.  Sialia 11: 3-6.

Ingold, D. J.  1991.  Nest-site fidelity in Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers. Wilson Bull. 103: 118-122.

Jackson, J. A.  1970.  Observations at a nest of the Red-headed Woodpecker. Ann. rep. University of Kansas Mus. Nat. Hist.. 1968-69: 3-10.

Jackson, J. A..  1976.  A comparison of some aspects of the breeding ecology of the Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers in Kansas.  Condor 78: 67-76.

Kilham, L.  1958.  Sealed-in winter stores of Red-headed Woodpeckers.  Wilson   Bull. 70: 107-113

Kilham, L.  1977.  Nest-site differences between Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers in South Carolina.  Wilson Bull. 89: 164-165.

Kilham, L.  1978.  Sexual similarity of Red-headed Woodpeckers and possible explanations based on fall territorial behavior.  Wilson Bull. 90: 285.

Kneeskern, R. and R. Kneeskern.  1979.  Red-headed Woodpecker behavior.  Loon 51: 106.

McClelland, B. R., and S. S. Frissell.  1975.  Identifying forest snags useful for hole-nesting birds.  J. For. 73: :414-417.

Nichols, L. L. and J. A. Jackson.  1987.  Interspecific aggression and the sexual monochromism of Red-headed Woodpeckers.  J. Field Ornithol. 58: 288-290.

Oberholser, H. C.  1974.   The bird life of Texas.  University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Sauer, J. R., S. Schwartz, B. G. Peterjohn, and J. E. Hines.  1996. The North American breeding bird survey home page.  Version 94.3.  Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Shackelford, C. E. and R. N. Conner.  1997.  Woodpecker abundance and habitat    use in three forest types in eastern Texas.  Wilson Bull. 1096 14-629.

Smith, D. R. and J. N. Layne.  1986.  Occurrence of a double brood in Red-headed Woodpeckers in south central Florida.  Florida Field Nat. 14: 98-99.

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