Red-headed Woodpeckers Are Hoping They “Hit A Snag”

By Yoyi Steele, Former Important Bird Area WI Program Coordinator

Red-headed woodpeckers are unmistakable with their deep red heads, black backs, and white wings. Alexander Wilson, father of American bird study, considered them a “spark bird,” capable of jump-starting someone’s interest in birding.

Red-headed woodpeckers are found throughout the central and eastern United States in oak savannas – park-like habitats with old, open-grown oaks – as well as other habitats that are structurally similar to savannas, such as field edges, pastures, parks, golf courses and orchards.

A red-headed woodpecker.

What red-headed woodpeckers need

Although similar, these habitats can be lacking in critical ways for woodpeckers. For example, city parks typically lack dead trees and limbs for nest excavation. Pastures and agricultural fields harbor many fewer insects (woodpecker food). And orchards lack nut trees (oaks, hickories, beech) that are so critical to the woodpeckers’ diet.

Red-headed woodpeckers are considered short-distance migrants, traveling south only distances far enough to find food. They can be year-round residents in southern Wisconsin. While nuts and berries are the winter diet, they eat plenty of insects during the growing season when raising young. Like other woodpeckers, they hunt for insects under bark and on the ground, but they can also catch them mid-air.

Only three other woodpeckers in the world hide their food for later, and red-headed woodpeckers are the only ones to cover their stored food with bark. Crazy as it sounds, they can store grasshoppers – alive!  Because they are such resourceful eaters, sites as small as two acres provide enough habitat for them to survive and raise young.

As you might guess, nests are excavated holes in dead trees or branches, usually near the edge of open areas. In spring, the female lays four to seven eggs; both parents then feed the chicks.

On the decline

Today, the red-headed woodpecker population continues to decline by 3% a year; there has been a 70% decline in the last 40 years as reported through the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Experts believe loss of habitat – the park-like scattering of trees, dead trees (also called snags), and branches for nesting – and lack of nuts (e.g., oak acorns, beech nuts) to carry them through winter explains much of this decline. Competition with introduced European starlings for nesting cavities and vehicle collisions also contribute to their decline.

What you can do

What can you do on your property? All other habitat preferences aside, red-headed woodpeckers will only nest in dead branches or snags.  Maintaining one or two snags per acre, particularly in more open areas, might just do it. At the very least, maintaining snags benefits all sorts of wildlife. Here’s hoping red-headed woodpeckers “hit a snag” on your property!