For the Birds Radio Program: Red-headed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Sept. 27, 1999

Laura talks about a woodpecker that is exceptional in every way. (This script for this month is certain)

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Most bird species have different male and female plumages. Sometimes the differences are subtle, sometimes enormous, but in most cases, females show subdued colors compared to males. In cases where birds have identical plumage, such as some sparrows, both sexes display cryptic coloration. One of the most flamboyant exceptions to this rule, with identically brilliant male and female, is the Red-headed Woodpecker. This brilliant red, white, and black bird shows off its bold pattern whether it’s perched on a conspicuous tree trunk or darting through the air catching airborne insects.

Red-headed Woodpeckers can chop holes in wood like their relatives, but have other habits as distinctive as their plumage. They catch moths and other flying bugs as flycatchers do, and gather, store, and eat acorns like Blue Jays. Red-heads hide other food items in tree crevices, too–beechnuts, poison ivy berries, and occasionally insects and earthworms. They eat some agricultural products, such as cherries, apples, and raspberries, and because they take so much for storage, they can be a real problem for farmers. Red-heads place their stores of food out of reach of birds even as large and clever as Blue Jays by digging deep into crevices and holes, and then pushing the items beyond the length of their long beaks with their long, flexible, muscular tongue, described by Alexander Skutch as “a sort of lingual proboscis.”

Red-headed Woodpeckers are one of the more highly migratory woodpecker species, though in central Minnesota and Wisconsin they can be found year-round. Once in a while in autumn I see them cruising past Hawk Ridge in Duluth, and sometimes a small group has suddenly appeared in my Duluth yard, but even in high summer they are rare so far north, and thrilling to see in a neighborhood with virtually no oak trees.

Their favorite food is acorns, so they are most abundant in oak forests, especially during years of good acorn production. During autumn when a Red-headed Woodpecker finds a likely spot, it starts storing acorns in crevices and excavating a sleeping hole. This is a lot of work, and to protect its investment, it is territorial throughout the winter, defending storage holes and sleeping quarters against potential competitors. Because it can carry acorns to storage holes from a wide area of forest, it defends a smaller territory than woodpeckers that don’t store food but require a large stand of trees to provide enough insects for survival. In winter Red-headed Woodpeckers defend an area that may be as tiny as one-tenth of an acre and seldom reaches five acres in size.

Red-headed Woodpeckers bring acorns into their territory from a wide range, sometimes flying back-and-forth from a productive woodlot to their storage area hundreds of times in a day. This makes them vulnerable to hawks, and because they fly low, they are hit by cars far more often than their relatives. When I started birding in Michigan in 1975, the Red-headed was the first woodpecker I saw. I thought it was abundant, but now sometimes I get through an entire calendar year with just one or two sightings. Birders throughout the country bemoan the decline of this beautiful bird. It’s sad when any species dwindles, but we humans feel most acutely the loss of such a conspicuous, beautiful, and pleasant bird.

Once in a while a Red-headed Woodpecker winters in someone’s backyard. If you find yourself in this lucky situation, you can attract it to your bird feeder with suet and sunflower seeds, and if you want to do your best to guarantee that it will stick around, try gathering acorns in an oak forest during autumn to set out during the winter. Frozen fruits are also extremely enticing–set both acorns and fruits on a flat platform feeder. The sight of this beautiful and uncommon bird at your feeder will pay back your efforts a hundred-fold.