Bay Journal

New homes- but not for Woodpeckers

  • By Michael Burke on June 01, 2008
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There are about 2.5 million red-headed woodpeckers, less than half the population 40 years ago. In the Chesapeake watershed, the decline is especially marked in Delaware.  (Dave Menke / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The last signs advertising the new residential development are behind us, but I'm still preoccupied with thoughts of another field sprouting McMansions instead of soybeans as we enter the wildlife refuge. We are greeted immediately by a flash of black, white and red as a red-headed woodpecker flies straight ahead of us, heading toward the distant stand of mixed oaks and loblolly pines.

Pat and Phyllis have their binoculars trained on the speeding bird by the time I stop the car. My thoughts are now riveted on the bird and its bold color patterns. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is unmistakable. The robin-sized bird displays large, uninterrupted white patches framed in black. Each bound in the bird's undulating flight gives a fresh view of its brilliant, red head.

It's over in a matter of seconds as the bird disappears into the far tree line.

In flight, the bird's broad bands of red, black and white look like the flag from some distant country. The red hood encompasses the entire head and neck. Just behind that, a solid black band extends from wingtip to wingtip. Next is a large white swath that combines adjacent parts of the wings, lower back and rump. A black border on the tail completes the pattern. Underneath, the wingtips and tail tip are black. Except for the head and neck, the rest of the underside is white.

Most eastern woodpeckers have red patches on the back of their heads. In downy and hairy woodpeckers, the red patch is limited to the males and is relatively small. For pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, the males' red is more extensive, and even the females show a red nape.

On the red-headed woodpecker, though, these patches are replaced by a red hood that covers the entire head and neck of the bird. The red head is found on both male and female.

The red-head has a typical woodpecker bill. It is chisel-shaped, sturdy and relatively long. Inside is a long, sticky, barbed tongue that is ideally suited for capturing insects. The bill is blue-gray with a darker tip.

I was surprised to learn that red-headed woodpeckers are omnivores. In addition to the insects they find in dead trees, they eat nuts, seeds and berries. And, according to the authoritative Cornell Lab of Ornithology, red-headed woodpeckers will also eat other bird's eggs, nestlings and even mice.

Red-headed woodpeckers are monogamous. They lay their eggs in unlined cavities they have drilled into dead trees. The chicks hatch in less than two weeks and fledge about a month later. The immature birds have a gray head and neck for the next several months. Their parents frequently hatch two broods each year.

The bird's range extends from Ontario and Manitoba down to the Gulf of Mexico. It is only rarely found in the higher elevations of the Appalachian chain. The species is a partial migrant. The northernmost birds will drop down out of Canada and the Dakotas when food is sparse, otherwise these woodpeckers are largely residential. They are most commonly found in the Central Plains west of the Mississippi.

Red-headed woodpeckers are declining throughout much of their range, according to the decades-long U.S. Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey. The bird is on Audubon's Watchlist. There are about 2.5 million red-headed woodpeckers, less than half the population 40 years ago. In the Chesapeake watershed, the decline is especially marked in Delaware.

Losses of food sources and habitat have been critical factors. The demise of elm trees, the spread of monoculture agricultural practices and widespread spraying of pesticides have combined to eliminate key habitat and food sources. Commercial and residential developments are removing forest edge areas.

To make matters worse, dead trees in parks and other public areas are viewed as unsightly. When the trees are cut down, the essential role they play in the ecosystem is lost.

In the refuge, the relatively open habitat that red-heads prefer is widespread. Forest edges and plenty of dead trees provide the right mix of food and nesting habitat. That's where we are looking. We have crept forward, and the three of us are scouring the oak and pine stand where we lost sight of the woodpecker moments ago.

Our search is in vain; the bird is gone.

My thoughts slip back to the signs advertising another housing development. Without a doubt, the slick brochures selling the expensive houses with a golf course tout the beauty of the nearby wildlife refuge.

But what if this red-headed woodpecker's disappearing act is just a prelude in a specieswide tragedy? Even on the refuge, the pressures of development are being felt by bird and birder alike.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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