12 Interesting Red-Headed Woodpecker Facts


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Red-headed woodpeckers are often found in open country, along roadsides, and in pine savannas east of the Rocky Mountains. A flash of red, black, and white is stunning in contrast to their surroundings as they perch and fly.

Read on to learn more about the unique ways they hunt and gather food, their special defining characteristics, and more.

1. Red-Headed Woodpeckers Cache Live Food

The red-headed woodpecker is 1 of 4 woodpecker species that caches, or stores, food for later consumption. 

These birds do not drill cavities for caching food but use already-formed holes and crevices. They break up the food or jab and cram it tightly into the crevices.

Red-headed woodpeckers have an omnivorous diet of foods. This includes acorns, other nuts, spiders, earthworms, insects, seeds, berries, fruits, small rodents, eggs, and nestlings.

This species in particular will also cache live grasshoppers or other insects into crevices of tree bark. They pack them in so tightly that they cannot escape.

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2. They Are The Only Woodpecker That Covers Food

Not only do these woodpeckers cache food, but they also will cover their stored food with wood chips or bark. They also hide seeds and other foods in fence posts and under roof shingles.

Covered caches provide reliable food sources year-round for this species. It also keeps other creatures from eating their stash.


3. They Catch Insects Mid-Air & Gather Food In Various Ways

While these birds drill into the wood for insects they use a variety of other hunting and gathering tactics as well.

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They will visit backyard feeders for seeds, suet mixtures, and nuts. They skillfully catch insects on the wing by perching and then chasing after them.

Red-headed woodpeckers also forage on the ground and in shrubs. 


4. It’s Given Nicknames, Such As “Flying Checkerboard”

The bold pattern of the red-headed woodpecker gives it the nickname “flying checkerboard”. Its vivid red-colored head is like a playing checker piece on a black and white body.

The patterning on its body gives it other nicknames as well such as “half-a-shirt”, “jellycoat”, “flag bird”, and shirt-tail bird.

This bird is also used as a war symbol in Cherokee culture in a story of how the bird was given its red-colored head from Hiawatha.


5. Males & Females Look Alike

In many species of birds, the male is colorful and the female is not. In the red-headed woodpecker species though, males and females look alike.

Adult red-headed woodpeckers are medium-sized (7.5 to 9.1 inches), have rounded bright red heads, and have short stiff tails. Their spike-like bills are metallic gray with a darker tip. 

They have a white chest and belly. Their wings are black with large patches of white that look like a thick white stripe when they are folded. Their tail feathers are black.

Juvenile red-headed woodpeckers have grayish-brown heads with white wing patches and black spots. These young birds molt into adult coloration by their second year.


6. Red-Headed Woodpeckers Are Residential Or Nomadic

Red-headed woodpeckers are found in the central and eastern United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. 

They are nomadic if they are seeking food sources, especially in areas with an abundance of nuts. Some northern red-headed woodpeckers will partially migrate in the fall. However, most stay in place year-round.

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These colorful birds are often found in groves, farm fields, amongst large scattered trees, open country, forest edges, and open pine woods.


7. They Destroy Other Birds’ Nests & Eggs

Not only do red-headed woodpeckers eat other bird eggs and nestlings, but they will destroy nests and eggs to defend their territory.

They may remove eggs from nests or nest boxes completely or use their bills to puncture the eggs of other species, such as ducks.


8. They Make Raucous Calls

Red-headed woodpeckers make a variety of sounds, including raucous calls that are loud and excitable. Other sounds include chirps, cackles, “t-churs”, “yarrows”, and shrill “charr-charrs”.

They also drum on trees, utility poles, and the sides of structures to claim territory, communicate, or find a mate.

Check out this video demonstrating the calls and drums of a red-headed woodpecker:


9. Breeding Pairs Stay Together For A While

Red-headed woodpeckers form monogamous pairs for breeding purposes. Paired birds often use the same cavity for raising offspring each year as well. 

The male typically finds or creates a cavity before searching for a mate. If the female approves of the cavity, then they form a breeding pair.

Southern-located red-headed woodpeckers may raise a second brood of hatchlings. However, they will often use a separate cavity for this set of offspring.


10. Both Parents Care For The Young

The female typically lays 4 to 5 eggs in a single brood, and they are incubated by both parents for 12 to 13 days. The male tends to take his turn incubating the eggs during the night.

Both parents feed the nestlings about 70% of protein sources such as arthropods, cockroaches, ants, and spiders, and 30% plant matter.


11. Red-Headed Woodpeckers Have Been Around For A Long Time

These birds have been around for a long time. 

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In places such as Florida and Illinois, Pleistocene-aged (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago) fossils of red-headed woodpeckers have been discovered.


12. Their Population Is Decreasing

Red-headed woodpeckers are decreasing in number. 

This is likely due to the loss of cavity-nesting sites due to invasive birds such as the European starling. 

They are more likely to get hit by traffic when catching insects on the wing and are found deceased roadside. 

Land development is also negatively impacting red-headed woodpeckers’ population growth.


Conclusion

The red-headed woodpecker is a beautiful sight to behold. Both males and females present with vivid red-colored heads and black-and-white checkered bodies. 

This bird exhibits interesting feeding tactics. These involve stuffing live insects in crevices to cache them, as well as covering up caches to hide them from other creatures. These woodpeckers can also catch insects on the wing and are found foraging on the ground. 

These facts and more as mentioned above, make the red-headed woodpecker an interesting bird to know about.

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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