Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, London Bird Team, September 2022.
Adult Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Paul Nicholson
The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of the seven woodpecker species that can be seen in Middlesex County each year.
The adult bird has dramatic and distinctive plumage. Its head looks as if it has been dipped in a tin of red paint. Its back, tail, and most of the wings are jet black in stark contrast to the white chest, belly and wing patches. Adult males and females look the same. These birds are about the same size of the more common Red-bellied Woodpecker.
The first-year Red-headed Woodpecker has a brown head and less dramatic plumage.
This species has a number of interesting adaptive features and behaviors. For example, feathers that cover the birds’ nostrils prevent small bits of wood from getting in while drilling, and, unlike many other woodpeckers, these birds are known to cache food such as insects and seeds for future use.
Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Paul Nicholson
Red-headed Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. Males select next sites in deadwood, either deciduous or coniferous, and then the male typically excavates a suitable hole. This can take up to two weeks. Nest holes from the previous year may be refurbished. Starlings frequently compete aggressively for these nesting sites.
The Red-headed Woodpecker has a range of vocalizations. A typical one is its shrill tchur call.
Listen to the Red-headed Woodpecker’s call below:
While not common in London and Middlesex, some birders saw this species at Komoka Provincial Park in August of this year. Southwestern Ontario birders typically have better luck in locating Red-headed Woodpeckers at Kettle Point or Pinery Provincial Park at Lake Huron and other locations. As ever, the eBird “Explore” feature can be helpful.
The Red-headed Woodpecker is a Species at Risk in Ontario. Its listed status is endangered because it is facing imminent extirpation. The more than 60% decline in the last 20 years of Ontario’s populations of Red-headed Woodpecker is attributed primarily to habitat loss due to forestry and agriculture, and the removal of dead trees and tree limbs in which the birds nest. This bird’s status under Canada’s national Species at Risk Act is “threatened.”
Because of its at-risk status, recovery plans have been required for the species. A national Red-headed Woodpecker recovery strategy was published last year. Aspects of the strategy include habitat conservation and management as well as landowner outreach and stewardship. The Province’s August 2020 species assessment report is also viewable online.
Help make London more Red-headed Woodpecker friendly:
Private land owners, particularly those who have suitable nesting habitat for Red-headed Woodpeckers, can be good stewards of the land. Ontario has some Species at Risk Stewardship Program projects that provide grants and information in support of the protection and recovery of Species at Risk in Ontario and their habitats.
Avoid use of pesticides and reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Retrofit your windows to prevent bird collisions.
Keep pet cats contained or leashed when outdoors.
Drive carefully near natural areas and watch out for wildlife on the road.