Red-headed woodpecker (photo by Chuck Tague)

6 July 2008

Here’s a bird you don’t see every day.

On the Fourth of July I hiked a section of State Gameland #95 in northern Butler County.  I was about to head back to the car when I decided to push a little further to the lake at Slippery Rock Creek.

On the way there I saw a flash of white among the dead snags in the swamp.  So many times I’ve watched the same flash and movement in the 2005 video of the ivory-billed woodpecker that my first reaction was a gasp.  It can’t be!

Well, of course it wasn’t. 

It was a red-headed woodpecker, a much smaller bird whose flight characteristics and white back are reminiscent of the ivory-billed.  Red-headed woodpeckers are unusual nonetheless.  I was very happy to see this one.

The woodpecker sat still for a while.  Then he zoomed up, hawked a large bug out of the air, carried it to a tree trunk and hammered it dead.  I thought he was going to cache it in a crevice, but he carried his prize to a nest hole and poked his head in.  Wow!  This bird has kids.

After dropping off the food he flew back to his perching snag and harassed a northern flicker along the way.  As soon as he perched he was almost invisible.  I would never have noticed him if he hadn’t flown.

When I got home I did some research and was amazed to discover I’d seen most of the red-headed woodpecker’s notable characteristics in one brief moment:

  • Red-headed woodpeckers are conspicuous in flight with their jazzy red, black and white tuxedos.
  • They are expert flycatchers but will also eat mast (tree nuts), waste grain, fruit, bird eggs, just about anything.
  • They fly with powerful flapping (like the ivory-billed woodpecker) not undulating flight like most woodpeckers.
  • They rely on areas of dead trees for nesting.  Their population increased when the chestnut blight killed so many trees.
  • They sit still for long periods of time.
  • They are the most pugnacious North American woodpecker, aggressive toward many birds including northern flickers.
  • They are said to have a playful nature.   (How this accords with aggression, I don’t know.)
  • In fall they migrate during the day, wandering in search of mast.
  • They’re one of only four woodpeckers who store food.
  • Their population is erratic and declining.

So if you see a red-headed woodpecker, count yourself lucky to see such pizazz.  I do.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

4 thoughts on “Pizazz!

  1. Interesting info, Kate–thanks. Gorgeous find, too. Congrats. Flickers are interesting (have seen the dads feed fledglings, seem more docile than other wps which you elude to).

  2. Hi Kate,
    I was lucky enough to have the RHWP visit our yard several times…I even had an immature one year. (May have come from nearby Conemaugh Dam, Tunnelton.) If you look very closely in the perfect light the adult looks really does look “Red, White and Blue (Black). It should be time for it to show up again…need to get out some homemade suet, which it ate and took it away (and came back 20 minutes later for more.)
    Keep up the great site and info….Marcy C.

  3. That must have been wonderful to see! I’ve heard a woodpecker in our neighborhood on more than one occasion, but haven’t caught a glimpse yet.

  4. I grew up with these birds (in IL). They (and other woodpecker varieties) drove my father crazy because they insisted on drilling on our cedar siding in spite of various bird-proofing measures. I liked liked them anyway. (Or maybe out of spite when I was a cranky teen.) I miss seeing them–and Baltimore Orioles–on a regular basis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *