Conspicuous in flight and territorial in nature, this beautiful forest resident is a treat to watch.
Missouri’s forests provide habitat for a diversity of plants and animals and one of my favorite woodland creatures is the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Striking in appearance, with its ruby-red hood, black-and-white plumage and stout gray beak, the red-headed woodpecker is easily distinguished from all other woodpeckers in Missouri. The species is also conspicuous in flight as it flashes its brilliant white rump and secondary feathers with every wing beat. The red-headed woodpecker is not only unique in appearance, but also in its feeding habits. It is one of only a handful of woodpeckers known to store food away for later use, sometimes at a single location, called a larder, but often in a variety of caches.
Red-headed woodpeckers are found throughout Missouri but they are sporadic, especially in winter. They prefer open woodlands, forests and parks, especially where tall, dead trees are present. I’ve witnessed their discerning taste in habitat as I’ve seen them on every visit to Shaw Nature Reserve (Franklin County), with its open woodlands and fields, but I’ve never spotted a single bird in the brushy woods surrounding the fields of our farm only a few miles away. As a matter of fact, red-headed woodpeckers have inspired me to spend more time on timber stand improvement to make my woodlands more welcoming to avian visitors.
Red-headed woodpeckers eat a variety of foods, including acorns, berries, fruit, insects, bird eggs and even small rodents. I have observed them for hours as they stored food, including live insects, in small tree cavities and underneath bark. Territorial, they will attack anything that comes near one of their caches, including squirrels. Once I watched a chickadee land near a red-head’s cache, and the tiny bird paid dearly for its mistake! In my observation, brown creepers have been the only bird species to fly under the territorial radar of red-headed woodpeckers.
Red-headed woodpeckers are gregarious and noisy, chattering incessantly, “tchur-tchur,” to others in their social group. Nesting occurs in the spring, in cavities of dead trees and branches. Vines, bark, grass and other materials are used to construct a nest. A clutch consists of four to seven eggs, which hatch in about two weeks. Fledglings leave the nest a few weeks later. Juvenile redheaded woodpeckers can be distinguished by their gray-brown head and black bars across their white secondary feathers.
Photographing red-headed woodpeckers is a challenge as most of their activity is conducted well above eye level. If you are lucky enough to find a subject that is lower in the canopy, you will be pleasantly surprised at how amenable it is to photography, too busy storing morsels to fret over nature paparazzi. The next challenge is to properly expose the red-head’s greatly contrasting colors of red, white and black. I suppose most of my favorite birds are difficult to photograph. Perhaps, along with their good looks, that is why they are so special.
—Story and photo by Danny Brown
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