Male and female Red-headed woodpeckers are identical and during courtship, pairs can often be seen playing “hide and seek” on different sides of the same tree.  Photo courtesy of Brian Young

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A Native American legend tells of a young man desperately in love but unable to win the lass’s affection. One day, walking in the woods, he heard an exquisite sound. He saw a beautiful bird, the Red-headed Woodpecker, but the sound must have come from another place, because the woodpecker’s voice is only a variation on a squawk.  The boy followed the beckoning bird through the woods, easily following its brilliant scarlet head. Finally, he came upon a hollow branch into which the woodpecker had drilled holes. The wind blowing through the holes produced an enchanting flute-like song. Native Americans at that time had drums and gourds, but no wind instruments. The young man carried the branch back to his village, played the “flute” and won his beloved’s heart. 

In 1808, in “American Ornithology,” Alexander Wilson wrote “There is perhaps no bird in North America more universally known than this. His tricolored [sic] plumage, red, white, and black, glossed with steel-blue, is so striking and characteristic and his predatory habits in the orchards and cornfields, added to his numbers, and fondness for hovering along the fences, so very notorious, that almost every child is acquainted with the Red-Headed Woodpecker.” (Male and female woodpeckers are identical.)  It was considered an agricultural pest by many, and some early legislatures offered two pence per head. In 1840, John. J. Audubon reported more than 100 birds shot from one cherry tree in one day.

During the following two centuries, the Red-headed Woodpecker population fluctuated from abundance to near extinction. Today, its breeding range extends from southern Canada to the Gulf coast, west to the Rockies. A 50 percent population decline has been recorded since 1966, but there is no clear explanation for this drop in numbers. In 2005, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources classified it as a Species in Greatest Need of Conservation in Illinois. Ironically, for such an obvious bird, the size of a robin with a head completely covered in scarlet, much of its life history remains a mystery due to sparse research. 

Their omnivorous diet includes seeds, nuts, corn, berries, fruit, insects, bird eggs, nestlings and an occasional adult bird or mouse. During the breeding season, a favorite diet is insects, but during the non-breeding season, they are mostly dependent upon the availability of “mast” – the fruits of oak and beech trees. 

Their erratic occurrence has been associated with a wide range of phenomena. In the late 1800s, enormous numbers were attracted to an outbreak of Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, but the disappearance of the grasshopper coincided with a crash in the woodpecker population. In the early 1900s, swaths of old-growth beech forest were cut, reducing the beechnuts on which they depend. Then the automobile was introduced. Redheads have a propensity for flying low to catch insects on the wing or on the ground, and bird/automobile collisions were inevitable. For breeding, they prefer a landscape of mixed open farmland, fencerows and small woodlots, a common early settlement geographic pattern. That pattern has changed to larger farms, no fencerows, and monocultures. The human propensity for tidiness and safety has led to the elimination of snags and dead trees near human surroundings and greatly reduced red-head breeding habitat. Another potential villain is the European starling, which was introduced into the U.S. in 1890. The starling is also a cavity nester and was suspected of taking over Red-headed Woodpecker nests. Recent studies have challenged that theory.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are opportunists. They flourish in areas of dead trees often caused by what humans consider disasters, such as fires, flooding, ice storms and disease. Peak numbers resulted in the southeast due to the chestnut blight in the early 1900s, and then, starting in the mid-1950s, as a result of Dutch elm disease, when there were many dead trees across their range in which to nest. When bark-less trees and snags of wide girth are unavailable, woodpeckers will use manmade poles. The extension of telegraph poles along the Sante Fe and Rock Island Railway lines may have expanded their breeding range into New Mexico. 

The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of four woodpeckers that cache food, whole or in pieces, drumming the food deeply into a crevice. They often move their caches from one place to another. They carry individual acorns or prey and store them in a variety of woody structures, including trees, fence posts and under house shingles. Grasshoppers are stored live but pressed so deeply into a crevice that they cannot move. Red-heads hammer acorns in so tightly that it is often impossible even for blue jays to remove them. Sometimes, after a rain, they cover their caches with strips of damp bark, the only woodpecker known to practice this behavior.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered monogamous. During courtship, pairs can be seen playing “hide and seek” on different sides of the same tree. They may pair for several years. They are faithful to nesting trees and often reuse cavities. The male is the primary excavator of the nest hole, which may be 8 to 80 feet above ground. Nests usually average 4-5 eggs and incubate for about two weeks. Both sexes feed the nestlings, who fledge about a month after hatching. The birds are noisy and aggressively defend their breeding territory.

In 2010, a pair nested in Skokie Lagoons, on the north side of Tower Road, in an open field just west of Forestway Drive. This year, starlings are using that hole, but red-heads are feeding nearby. Red-heads are tenacious and may reclaim the cavity after the starlings leave. Stay tuned.