Red-headed Woodpecker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier features a bird which sometimes overwinters in northeast Illinois, but usually heads south. It is of special interest because it has become uncommon, mainly through loss of its savanna habitat. As always, the following account is limited to my own observations, with a starting paragraph written in the mid-1980’s followed by dated observations.

Woodpecker, Red-headed

Adult red-headed woodpecker

In my childhood I found this bird to be rare in my home town of Culver, Indiana. I saw my first one at church camp near Lafayette, Indiana, when I was nearly ten. I soon found that they were common at the woodlots near the Culver Fish Hatchery, where they nested in large, standing dead trees just beyond the forest boundary. This seemed to be a requirement for their residence: large standing, preferably barkless, dead trees in the open near woods. The Dutch elm disease appears to have been a boon for them. I found them rare in Pennsylvania a few years later, where such elms were fallen. Some red-headed woodpeckers remain in DuPage County, and they are abundant along the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. Their voice is similar to the red-bellied woodpecker’s. Usually they feed on tree trunks, occasionally on the ground. Insects are not the only summer food: I saw one eating ripe cherries in late spring at the Hort Park at Purdue. They are migratory, generally disappear November to April.

17AU86. Meacham Grove Forest Preserve, Illinois. A hoarsely squeaking youngster followed an adult and begged vigorously.

Red-headed woodpecker fledgling

18AP99. First of year observed, northern Illinois.

JE99. Horsethief Canyon, central Kansas. Red-headed woodpeckers hunted for insects from short roadside posts in a park. They flew to the ground and plants nearby like eastern bluebirds, but also did some mid-air sallying.

1MY00. A migrating red-headed woodpecker stopped by Willowbrook, in trees along the stream.

22MY00. A red-headed woodpecker observed on a dead oak in the middle of a savannah at the Morton Arboretum. Its trill call is flatter in tone, not rising or falling like the red-bellied’s.

29SE01. A young bird was in a tall tree near the Joy Path, Morton Arboretum. In the same tree were a flicker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

3NO01. I saw an individual (adult) in the flooded dead trees of Herrick Lake Forest Preserve’s south marsh.

25MY02. Two adults were among the dead trees at Meacham Grove east.

1FE04. I spotted an overwintering adult in the Poverty Savanna at Waterfall Glen. It was shy, stayed on the opposite side of the tree when I tried to photograph it.

15FE04. A red-headed woodpecker is established in Mom and Dad’s neighborhood in Culver. It calls throughout the day, hangs out especially on large dead top branches of some of the neighbors’ maples. Once, one took a corn kernel from Dad’s feeder. The usual call resembles a red-bellied’s, but the pitch is higher and with significantly less burr, sometimes sounding almost like a clear note.

Nest site for red-headed woodpeckers, Culver, Indiana

29DE10. Red-headed woodpeckers have been in the Culver neighborhood each summer in recent years. Today, one is in Mom’s and Dad’s yard. I also see them frequently along the rural roads, where there are wood lots, trees around farm homes, and wooden telephone poles.

3SE11. In Mom and Dad’s Culver neighborhood, a pileated woodpecker passed through. The local red-headeds clearly were disturbed, and while checking them I saw that they had at least one fledgling.

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3 Comments

  1. Linda Padera said,

    March 16, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Carl,

    Good timing yet again! This year there will be a woodland BCN Bird Blitz and it’s main focus is the Red-headed Woodpecker.

    Linda Padera

  2. July 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Carl: I am monitoring a Pileated Woodpecker nest this year. A Red-headed Woodpecker nest is about 30 feet higher in the same tree. I have witnessed other Red-headed woodpecker family groups fighting among themselves over an existing nesting cavity, and chasing off Red-bellied woodpeckers who came within 100 yards.

    Do you have any sense that the Pileateds, though bigger, are in danger?

    As Ever, Orin Keplinger in Boone County, IL

    • natureinquiries said,

      July 8, 2012 at 5:58 am

      Hi, Orin,
      I would think you would have seen conflict by now if there were going to be any. Pileateds use much larger cavities, and I wouldn’t expect them to be regarded as rivals by red-headeds.
      Regards,
      Carl


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