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The Ivory Bill·Birds·Cavity Makers

Red-headed Woodpeckers, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Red-headed woodpecker perched on tree stumps on a forest edge

Red-headed Woodpeckers are recognized for their striking red head, white underparts, and distinctive black wings with large white patches.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers that range across North America from late April to early August. They are commonly found in deciduous and mixed forests, forest edges, open woodlands, orchards, savannas, and areas with scattered trees where insects, fruits, and nuts are abundant during the breeding season.

They forage for insects, such as beetles, ants, and grasshoppers, along with fruits like cherries and acorns. Their strong flight and acrobatic skills enable them to catch insects in mid-air and glean food from tree trunks. They may also feed on the occasional small vertebrate, such as mice and nestling birds.

Courtship in Red-headed Woodpeckers involves aerial displays and calls. Males perform aerial stunts, displaying their bright red heads to attract females. Once a pair forms, they engage in mutual preening and duet-like calls.

Red-headed Woodpeckers typically excavate nesting cavities in dead or dying trees, especially those with softer wood like cottonwood, willow, and some fruit trees. They also use standing dead trees and occasionally live trees. They can be found in both natural and human-altered landscapes and they nest in bird houses.  Red-headed Woodpecker Bird House Plans

The entrance hole of a Red-headed Woodpecker’s nesting cavity is relatively large compared to some other woodpecker species, measuring around 2.25 to 3 inches (5.7 to 7.6 cm) in diameter. The depth of the cavity varies but is generally around 12 to 24 inches (30 to 61 cm) deep, leading to a spacious nesting chamber inside.

Red-headed Woodpeckers do not add any materials inside their nesting cavities. They prefer a simple, unlined cavity for nesting.

Red-headed Woodpeckers may use the same nesting cavity in consecutive years if it remains suitable and undisturbed. However, they are more likely to create new cavities each breeding season. They are not territorial and do not defend specific nesting sites from year to year.

Red-headed Woodpeckers typically lay 4 to 7 white eggs, which are incubated by both parents for about 12 to 14 days. After hatching, chicks spend several weeks as nestlings inside the nesting cavity. During this time, they are entirely dependent on their parents for food, warmth, and protection. Both the male and female parents take turns feeding the chicks a diet consisting of insects, fruits, nuts, and occasionally small vertebrates.

Development of Flight Feathers: As the nestlings grow, their bodies are covered with soft downy feathers. Over time, these feathers are replaced by more mature feathers, including flight feathers essential for flying. As the nestlings near the fledging stage, they become more active and start exercising their wings. They may flap their wings and hop around inside the nesting cavity to build their flight muscles and coordination.

Red-headed Woodpecker chicks typically fledge when they are around 26 to 30 days old. However, the exact timing can vary depending on food availability and environmental factors. When the young woodpeckers are ready, they venture out of the nesting cavity and onto nearby branches.

The young fledglings may initially remain close to the nesting tree and nearby vegetation. They are still learning to balance and coordinate their flight, so their early flights might be short and somewhat clumsy. They practice their flying skills by hopping, fluttering, and exploring their surroundings.

Even after fledging, the parents continue to provide care and support to the young woodpeckers. The parents accompany the fledglings and teach them essential foraging skills, such as finding food sources and identifying potential threats.

As the fledglings gain more experience and confidence in their flying and foraging abilities, they gradually become more independent from their parents. They start exploring a broader area and may join mixed-species foraging flocks to find food.

The fledging stage is a critical time for young birds as they learn to navigate their environment and develop survival skills. It’s important for humans to observe from a distance and avoid unnecessary interference,

Red-headed Woodpeckers undertake a short-distance migration, usually within their breeding range. They migrate during the fall, around late September, to their wintering grounds in the southern United States. They often follow the eastern flyway during migration.

In winter, these woodpeckers prefer open woodlands, savannas, and grasslands where they forage on a diet of nuts, seeds, and occasionally insects. They stay in their wintering grounds until early April, after which they return north to their breeding areas.

Properly designed nest boxes located in suitable habitats can attract Red-headed Woodpeckers and help support their populations.