R ecently I had a wonderful opportunity to study and photograph a pair of red-headed woodpeckers nesting in an old tree and feeding their young.
All of this happened because a reader of this column gave me a shout to share the exciting news of this cool woodpecker.
The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythocephalus) was once a very common woodpecker. In the mid-1800s, John James Audubon stated that the red-headed woodpecker was the most common woodpecker in North America. He called them semi-domesticated because they weren’t afraid of people. He stated that they were camp robbers and also a pest.
According to Audubon Society, Christmas Bird Count data, between the 1950s and the year 2010, the population of red-headed woodpeckers dropped dramatically. Over 80 percent of the population died out in just over 50 years.
Currently we continue to lose approximately 2 percent each year. That means within a couple decades we could see this bird become extinct if the trend continues.
The reason behind this decline is not understood. Many are quick to blame loss of habitat for their decline. While it is true that we have had a decline in mature tree habitat, no conclusive study indicates this to be the cause.
I would point to the fact that the population of red-bellied woodpeckers, with a similar size, shape and habitat requirement, is exploding across the country. If it were truly a habitat issue, it should affect both species equally since they both have the same habitat requirements.
Competition with European starlings for the nest cavity has also been implicated in the decline of the red-heads. While there’s no doubt competition for the nest cavity with the starling will impact the red-heads, the population of the European starling is also dropping across the country at the same time. Also, if the starling usurps the red-head, the woodpecker can always excavate a new cavity.
It has been proposed that red-headed woodpeckers are habitat specialists and require a very unique habitat called the oak savanna. The argument goes that as oak savanna habitat is reduced, so goes the woodpecker.
I would maintain that the amount of oak savanna habitat was never very large and perhaps the reason why we find red-heads in this habitat now is because it’s the last holdout where the woodpeckers can still live. Ask anyone over the age of 50 who grew up on a farm and they’ll remember red-headed woodpeckers, and they didn’t have oak savanna habitat.
Over the past 30 years of studying and photographing red-headed woodpeckers, the vast majority have not been in oak savanna habitat. In fact the nest I was photographing recently was in a dead birch tree in a mixed deciduous forest.
There are over 200 species of woodpecker in the world and only four species cache food. Caching food is a process of storing nuts, such as acorns, in a cavity for later consumption. This might be a clue. For example the number of nut-bearing trees has declined dramatically over the past 100 years.
Both the number of oak trees, hickories and beech have declined and the American chestnut is completely gone. Whether or not this is the cause of the decline is not known.
Here are some interesting aspects of the red-headed woodpecker. In nearly all of the woodpeckers species, it is easy to see the difference between the male and female. Usually the male has some kind of marking on its head.
However the red-headed woodpecker male and female look exactly the same. Even if you have these birds in your hands and you can examine them, you won’t be able to tell the difference between the male and the female. This is an interesting difference between the red-headed woodpeckers and the rest of the woodpeckers.
Red-headed woodpeckers are remarkable species and I always feel honored to be able to see and film this bird. If you have a nest in your yard, no matter how common the species, give me a shout. You never know, I might come visit.
Until next time ...