There's no mistaking the red-headed woodpecker once you've seen one. But until you've seen one it's hard to appreciate how distinctive it really is.
Most all woodpeckers have at least some red coloring on the head, even if its only a small patch. Many mistake the red-bellied woodpecker for the red-headed, because much of its head is indeed red while its belly is barely so. But the head of the red-headed, Melanerpes erythrocephalus, is entirely red, a deep crimson, in fact, through the face, neck and into the chest. The red-bellied woodpecker maybe has a trace of red in the face but is otherwise grayish white through the throat and chest.
Part of the confusion likely has to do with how uncommon the red-headed is, particularly in Florida and specifically in South Florida. We just don't see this bird that frequently. A 2003 study by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the red-headed's population was "patchy" throughout the state and was absent from much of South Florida, even where suitable habitat was available. Some experts exclude South Florida from its range. There are at least a few in Palm Beach County, and they are breeding as evidenced by the photo of a juvenile, with its black head, below. The photo, and a companion, were taken at Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area in central Palm Beach County during the summer of 2015.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature rates the red-headed woodpecker as "near threatened." Its population has been in decline for years, with no signs of turning around. Loss of habitat, declining numbers of suitable nesting sites and competition with European starlings for nesting holes are among the likely reasons for the bird's falling numbers.
The red-headed woodpecker's range includes much of the eastern United States, particularly the central and southeastern parts of the country. It is for the most part a stay-at-home bird, but it does migrate as far west as the eastern slopes of the Rockies and extreme southern Canada. (Devil's Tower National Monument, where two of the photos on this page were taken, is in eastern Wyoming.) It prefers open pinelands, savannas and clearings within woods. Apparently at least a portion of Florida's population is migratory, according to the FFWCC report previously cited.
Its head is round, completely red through the neck and into the chest and back. The back is black, with a white body and white flashes in the wings. The color combination, plus its preference for open woodlands makes the red-headed easy to spot — if one happens to be around. During the spring and summer, red-headed woodpeckers mostly eat bugs found by pecking through snags and bark, but it will also catch them on the fly. Acorns, beachnuts, fruit, berries, corn and other grains are also a major part of their diet, especially in the cooler months. It nests in snags — dead trees — where it excavates a cavity that can take one to three weeks to complete. Females lay four to seven eggs, which take about two weeks, give or take, to hatch. Both parents share incubation duty, and both handle feeding. Offspring remain in the nest for three to four weeks. Juveniles stay with their parents for a time after fledging. They're easy to distinguish from their parents, because their heads are black, not red.
Red-headed woodpeckers are members of Picidae, the woodpecker family.
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Links for Red-Headed Woodpecker