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Cape Codder Article – Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Dear Bird Folks:

I enjoyed your column on hairy and downy woodpeckers, but I’m from the Midwest where I often see red-headed woodpeckers. Is there any chance of getting those handsome woodpeckers around here? I really like redheads.
Dan, Yarmouthport

Me, too, Dan:

I really like redheads too. There is just something different about them. Have you tried the coffee shops? Sometimes you can find a few redheads hanging out there.

As for red-headed woodpeckers, that won’t be so easy. Cape Cod and most of New England has very few, if any, red-headed woodpeckers. But I’m glad you asked the question, since we constantly have to correct people who think any woodpecker with red on the head is a red-headed woodpecker.

There is no mistaking an adult red-headed woodpecker. It’s one of the few birds whose name really explains and helps with identification. (Hairy woodpecker. Yeah right, that’s a helpful name.) The redhead has a striking, totally red hood that starts on its shoulders and wraps completely over its head down to its chest. Its red head is a startling contrast to the bird’s half black and half white back.

It appears that red-headed woodpeckers were more common birds here in New England in the 1800’s, but then their population started to decline. It is thought that the introduction of the automobile contributed to their demise. Department of Motor Vehicles’ records indicate that red-headed woodpeckers are just terrible drivers, and accidents were quite common. They also like to ground feed on the insects attracted to road edges and were often hit by passing vehicles. The introduced European starling probably caused the most problems for these woodpeckers. Redheads seem to avoid the dense forest that other woodpeckers prefer. They like the more open or isolated trees, the same kind of nesting sites that starlings love. Even though red-heads are bigger than starlings, starlings being trained in Europe, are superb at evicting natives. The starlings’ aggressive nature forced the woodpeckers to move on. I would also guess changes in the landscape and regrowth of area forests made New England less appealing to them.

Redheads are more omnivorous than most woodpeckers. They have been known to eat mice, birds’ eggs and baby birds. But mostly they love a nice juicy bug (and who doesn’t?). However, they rarely drill into trees looking for bugs like other woodpeckers. Redheads often sit on dead branches and sally out after passing insects like a flycatcher. They also swoop down to the ground to pick up beetles, crickets and earthworms. That’s a successful feeding behavior if they can learn to avoid the oncoming Studebakers.

Redheads also eat lots of vegetable matter including seeds, nuts and berries, but never ever Brussels sprouts, no matter what your parents tell you. They also gather and stash food for the winter. Redheads spend much of the fall searching and hiding acorns and beechnuts in crevices of trees. It is reported that occasionally the woodpecker’s hidden food is discovered and eaten by squirrels. What? Squirrels stealilng food? I find that hard to believe.

As for attracting red-headed woodpeckers to our yards, they eat the same things as most woodpeckers. Sunflower hearts and beef suet will attract them if they happen to be in the area. The good news is that redheads wander in search of food more than many other woodpeckers, so there is a chance one could pop up in Yarmouthport some day.

Good luck, Dan, I hope this info helps. If you have any more questions for me about redheads, I’ll be in the coffee shop.