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Red-headed Woodpecker
Melanerpes erythrocephalus
– Family
Authors: Smith, Kimberly G., James H. Withgott, and Paul G. Rodewald

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Adult Red-headed Woodpecker, Iowa, June
Figure 1. Distribution of the Red-headed Woodpecker.

One of the most easily recognized birds in the eastern United States, and one of North America’s most handsome woodpeckers, this species is perhaps the best example of a sexually monomorphic woodpecker—adult males and females are indistinguishable in the field. The Red-headed Woodpecker is the most expert and persistent flycatcher in its family, and the most omnivorous and most pugnacious of North American woodpeckers during both breeding and nonbreeding seasons. It is 1 of only 4 woodpeckers that commonly stores food.

Over the last 200 years, this species has undergone periods of great abundance and periods when it appeared to be on the verge of extinction. Ornithologists in the early 1900s were baffled by its erratic occurrence; nonbreeding-season movements historically were influenced by nut crops in extensive northern beech (Fagus) forests, which no longer exist, and movements today are possibly influenced by large-scale variations in abundance of acorns. Breeding populations benefited from the demise of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) and American elm (Ulnus americana) trees from the Eastern deciduous forest, but may have been adversely affected by the disappearance (or possible extinction) of a formerly abundant grasshopper in the Midwest.

This brilliantly colored bird has had a variety of colorful common names, such as white-shirt, half-a-shirt, shirt-tail bird, tricolored woodpecker, jellycoat, flag bird, and the flying checker-board. The Red-headed Woodpecker inspired Alexander Wilson to become an ornithologist (Forbush 1927), was one of the first birds Ludlow Griscom learned to identify (Davis 1994), and caused Lawrence Kilham to decide to study woodpeckers (Kilham 1983). It was a war symbol of Cherokee Indians, and its head was used as a battle ornament, particularly by Plains tribes (Witthoft 1946). This was the woodpecker whose head Hiawatha dipped in the blood of Pearl Feather in Longfellow’s poem (Taverner 1953).

This species’ conspicuousness and playful nature also has led to a plethora of short notes and general accounts, with mostly anecdotal information. There are surprisingly few major studies of this species. Many aspects of its behavior and ecology were elucidated by the long-term observations of Lawrence Kilham (summarized in Kilham 1983), but no in-depth study of a single population has been conducted. Few individuals have been color-banded (Venables and Collopy 1989, Ingold 1991, Belson 1998); thus, for example, little is known about differences in behavior or ecology of the sexes. Quantitative breeding information was first published 25 years ago (Reller 1972, Jackson 1976), but no major study has been conducted on nesting ecology, e.g., no information exists on growth and development of young. Competition for nesting sites with European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) was widely reported as causing the decline of Red-headed Woodpecker populations, but recent investigations into the relationship suggest otherwise (Ingold 1989, 1990, 1994a). During winter, only one study has examined interspecific relations of woodland birds in any detail (Williams 1975, Williams and Batzli 1979a, 1979b, 1979c) and the relationship between mast abundance and population dynamics has been examined in only a general manner on a broad scale (Smith 1986a, 1986b; Smith and Scarlett 1987). Certainly this species’ habit of nesting in dead branches in precarious places has hindered breeding studies; the unpredictability of populations in winter is a challenge as well. Nonetheless, it is surprising how much basic information about this relatively common and easily identified species remains unknown, compared to other species of woodpeckers in North America.