Red-headed woodpeckers live on ‘dog TV’


By Bonnie Dailey - Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District



We have a built-in alert system at our house. Our two dogs spend much of their time in front of the patio door in the kitchen, alternating between furious barking to keep away perceived interlopers and a relaxing snooze in the sun. The patio door is about 15 feet from about 10 different bird feeders with suet, black oil sunflower seed, and nyger seed, as well as a bird bath. This area provides 24-hour wildlife viewing and at our house we call this “dog TV.” Last week, we enjoyed an adult fox with kits passing by, a barred owl hoping to catch something to eat under the feeders, a chipmunk, and a skunk, along with various birds such as the Eastern towhee, brown thrasher, and the American goldfinch. For the first time, we have two red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) hanging out at our feeders. This is one of my favorite birds.

There are several woodpeckers in Ohio that have red coloring on their heads, such as the red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker and northern flicker. But none of these compares to the entirely red head of the of the red-headed woodpecker. I think these birds look so dressed up and elegant, like they are stepping out on the town in their theater clothes. The whole head is brilliant crimson, which makes them vastly different than the other woodpeckers who only have a patch or two of red. The rest of the body features a white belly and the back is black with snow white wing patches. Males and females look alike.

Red-headed woodpeckers are omnivorous, eating insects, nuts, berries, fruit, suet and seeds. They can perch on a limb or post to spot insects and are very adept at catching them on the fly. Several woodpeckers are known to store food for later, but the red-headed is the only one known to cover the stored food with wood or bark. According to the website allaboutbirds.org, it hides insects and seeds in cracks in wood, under bark, and in fenceposts. “Grasshoppers are regularly stored alive, but wedged into crevices so tightly that they cannot escape.”

The red-headed woodpecker inhabits open wooded areas with oaks and hickories. We have several red oaks and adjacent landowners have small woodlots with diverse tree species. These woodlots have dead trees and dying trees, which are ideal for nesting cavities. The male does most of the excavation in preparation for nest building, and both partners help build the nest. The red-headed woodpecker can have one to two broods a year with three to 10 eggs. The young fledge 24 to 31 days after hatching. I have my fingers crossed that we will get to see the young birds at our feeders. I will have to be on my game because the immature red-headed woodpecker does not have a red head and black wings, but instead, is a dusky brown with the distinctive white wing patches.

Alas, the red-headed woodpecker is somewhat nomadic, common one year and absent the next, so if you can’t find us, we are probably watching “dog TV” in hopes of sighting our two red-headed woodpeckers.

In addition to Cornell University’s All About Birds, www.allaboutbirds.org, you can learn about Ohio birds at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife website at wildlife.ohiodnr.gov. Look under Wildlife Watching, Birding Resources to find identification guides, field checklists, and birding locations. Check out the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District’s website at www.delawareswcd.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to find out what’s happening in conservation.

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By Bonnie Dailey

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.