Melanerpes erythrocephalusred-headed woodpecker

Geographic Range

Red-headed woodpeckers are widely distributed throughout most of North America. They range east to west from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and north to south from Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba) and southern Ontario, to Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida. Once a common bird, this species is now found sporadically throughout its range.


Red-headed woodpeckers prefer open woodlands and forest edges and clearings. They are often found in deciduous woodlands, river bottoms, open woods, orchards, parks, open country, savannas and grasslands with scattered trees. They generally prefer habitat with few tall, large-diameter trees.

The winter habitat of this species is similar to the breeding habitat; red-headed woodpeckers spend the winter in mature forests containing large, old trees. Their winter distribution within the range is thought to be primarily dependent on the abundance of food, particularly acorns. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Physical Description

Male and female red-headed woodpeckers look alike. The entire head, neck, throat and upper breast are bright red. The wings and tail are bluish-black, and there are large square areas of white on the rear part of their wings and upper rump. The white on the wings makes them especially noticeable during flight. Immature birds also possess the white patches on their wings. However, immature red-headed woodpeckers have a buffy-brown head and neck, which becomes red after the first molt.

This woodpecker is relatively small compared to others in its family. Red-headed woodpeckers can range from 21 to 25 cm in length and have a wingspan of 33 to 37 cm. The bill is long and chisel shaped, which is important for drilling into trees. The average red-headed woodpecker weighs approximately 70 grams.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    70 g
    2.47 oz
  • Average mass
    75 g
    2.64 oz
  • Range length
    21 to 25 cm
    8.27 to 9.84 in
  • Range wingspan
    33 to 37 cm
    12.99 to 14.57 in


Red-headed woodpeckers are thought to be monogamous, though polygyny may occur. There is little information available about formation or duration of pair bonds in this species, though some pairs are known to have mated together over several seasons. (Smith, et al., 2000)

These woodpeckers nest in cavities that they excavate with their beaks. The nest sites range from natural holes, to under roofs of buildings, to fence posts, or utility poles. Preferred nest sites are in dead trees. Both the male and female excavate the nest, though the male does most of the drilling. The cavity is 20 to 60 cm deep. The cavity entrance is 5-6 cm in diameter, but expands inside to nearly twice that width. (Smith, et al., 2000)

The eggs are laid between April and July, with clutch sizes of 3 to 10 eggs, most commonly 5 eggs. Incubation begins after the last egg is laid, and lasts 12 to 14 days. Both parents incubate, with males incubating at night. The chicks are altricial when they hatch; they are naked and their eyes don’t open for 12 to 13 days. The young are fed and brooded by both parents and leave the nest at 24 to 31 days old. The chicks are strong fliers and able to catch their own food soon after fledging. Chicks that remain near the nest after several weeks are chased away by the parents. The chicks will be able to breed the next summer.

Red-headed woodpeckers have one or two broods a year. Pairs may start a second nesting attempt while still feeding the first brood. Though the second brood can be raised in the same nest, a new nest cavity is usually found. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Breeding interval
    Red-headed woodpeckers have one or two broods a year.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season spans from April to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 to 31 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Male and female red-headed woodpeckers share most of the parental responsibilities, including nest construction, incubation, feeding, brooding and otherwise caring for the young. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Annual adult survivorship is estimated to be about 62% in this species. The oldest known wild red-headed woodpecker lived at least 9 years and 11 months. (Smith, et al., 2000)


Red-headed woodpeckers are solitary. They defend breeding territories in spring and summer and feeding territories in fall and winter.

Red-headed woodpeckers spend the majority of their time foraging. Whether watching for flying insects or foraging on the ground, they are usually searching for food. In autumn, these woodpeckers store food for the winter.

Red-headed woodpeckers are year-round residents throughout most of their range. Those that breed in the northern and western parts of the range migrate to southern states in the winter. Migration occurs by day and in short spurts. There are no records of red-headed woodpeckers occurring south of the United States. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time. The home range of red-headed woodpeckers varies from year to year, depending on food availability.

Communication and Perception

Red-headed woodpeckers communicate using a wide array of calls and drumming. Both vocalizations and drumming seem to be used in a variety of social situations, including territorial encounters, courtship, copulation and communication between a mated pair. For example, mutual tapping (male tapping on the inside of the nest cavity while female taps on the outside) may play an important role in courtship. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

Red-headed woodpeckers are one of the most omnivorous woodpecker species. Their diet includes a wide variety of insects, spiders, earthworms, nuts, seeds, berries, wild and cultivated fruit and occasionally small mammals. These woodpeckers are also known to eat young or eggs from the nests of bluebirds, house sparrows <<Passer domesticus and chickadees. Occasionally, they can also be seen eating bark.

Red-headed woodpeckers have many techniques for obtaining food. They perch on branches or utility poles watching for flying insects and then darting after them. They also spend time foraging on the ground or in shrubs. A common misconception is that all woodpeckers drill holes in trees to find the majority of their food. Although they occasionally drill dead trees for wood boring larvae, flying insects are more important in the diet of red-headed woodpeckers.

The majority of the food found by red-headed woodpeckers is stored in natural or anthropogenic crevices or holes that are not excavated by the woodpeckers themselves. If a piece of nut does not fit into the intended crevice, red-headed woodpeckers break the nut into pieces rather than modifying the crevice to fit the food. Some food stores are sealed with wood chips to protect the food from potential scavengers.

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Red-headed woodpeckers adults are vulnerable to predation by raptors, including Cooper’s hawks, and peregrine falcons, eastern screech-owls and red foxes. Eggs and chicks are predated by snakes, including black rat snakes and mammals, including raccoons and flying squirrels.

Adult red-headed woodpeckers respond to approaching predators by scolding them with a “churring” call. (Smith, et al., 2000)

Ecosystem Roles

Red-headed woodpeckers have an impact on the plant and animal species they eat. For example, they may aid in the dispersal of plants whose seeds they cache if the seeds are not later retrieved. Red-headed woodpeckers also play an important role in creating nest cavities for other cavity-nesting birds and mammals that do not excavate their own nest holes.

Red-headed woodpeckers provide food for their predators. They also host a number of internal and external parasites. (Smith, et al., 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
  • creates habitat
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Cavity nesting birds and mammals

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

This bird is a favorite of birdwatchers and thus provides recreational value to humans.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes feed on cultivated fruits and vegetables. This can cost small farmers.

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Red-headed woodpeckers were once very common throughout eastern North America, but have been decreasing in abundance. In the 1890's, the introduction of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) had a significant negative impact on red-headed woodpeckers. The starlings compete with these woodpeckers for their nesting holes, frequently driving them from their homes.

Also contributing to the decline of red-headed woodpeckers is the increased removal of dead trees containing potential nest sites. The increased use of automobiles has also led to declining numbers of red-headed woodpeckers, which are often struck by cars when swooping for prey. In order to conserve red-headed woodpeckers, their habitat needs to be protected and European starling populations must be controlled.

Red-headed woodpeckers are protected under the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are listed as a near-threatened species by the IUCN.


Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Elizabeth J. Axley (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Graham, F. 1989. Starling scourge: Red-headed woodpeckers. Audubon, 91: 25-27.

Inglod, D. 1989. Nesting phenology and competition for nest site among red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers and European Starlings. Auk, 106(2): 209-217.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

McNair, D. 1996. Late breeding records of a red headed woodpecker and a summer tanager in Florida. Florida Field Naturalist, 24(3): 78-80.

Smith, K., J. Withgott, P. Rodewald. 2000. Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 518. Philadelphia: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Winkler, H. 1995. Woodpeckers: A guide to the woodpeckers of the world. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.