The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker attacks an adult (photo by Chris Saladin)
Immature red-headed woodpecker attacks adult (photo by Chris Saladin)

2 October 2013

Watch out!

Last week Chris Saladin captured these action shots of two red-headed woodpeckers in a protracted fight at Sandy Ridge Reservation.  The immature woodpecker, still clad in gray, seems to have the upper hand.  What’s the deal here?  Why are they fighting?

All woodpeckers chase to maintain their territories but red-headed woodpeckers take fighting to an extreme.  During the breeding season they’re aggressive to everyone, especially the cavity-nesters.  They persecute northern flickers, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers.  If a starling dares to take a red-headed’s nest hole the woodpecker fights and wins.  Even the pileated woodpecker defers to this bird.

Red-headed woodpeckers are especially aggressive toward each other and are solitary in winter because they fight so much.  Each one establishes a winter territory where he gathers and stores acorns for his personal use.  All other red-headeds — male, female and immature — must stay away!

Perhaps this immature woodpecker showed up on migration and hoped to claim the Sandy Ridge wetland.  The adult is having none of it!

Above, he makes the bark fly as he bounces off the dead tree.  Below, he’s quick to get out of the way as the immature zooms in!

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker chases adult (photo by Chris Saladin)
Immature red-headed woodpecker attacks adult (photo by Chris Saladin)

And here they’re airborne in foot-to-foot combat!

Juvenile and adult Red-headed woodpeckers fighting (photo by Chris Saladin)
Immature red-headed woodpecker attacks adult (photo by Chris Saladin)

Apparently they can’t stand the sight of each other.

Finally the immature pauses so we can see him at rest.

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker (photo by Chris Saladin)
Immature red-headed woodpecker at rest (photo by Chris Saladin)

A most pugnacious species!

(photos by Chris Saladin)

p.s. Click here to see what an adult red-headed woodpecker looks like when he’s not in battle.

9 thoughts on “The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker

  1. Hi Kate.

    Where was that area with the red-headeds that you wrote about a few years ago, either here or on the birding list? I believe it was a gamelands up north a little ways? Would like to go see them again.


    1. Melissa, here are some sites.
      In Pennsylvania, two places:
      1. SGL 95 in Butler County, at Slippery Rock Creek to the east of where the creek goes under Kohlmeyer Rd. It’s at the spot where the lake empties into the creek and is very polluted with acid mine drainage. I did not see the woodpeckers there this year, though.
      2. Presque Isle on the ridge above the Sidewalk Trail… but check eBird for recent sightings. I did not see them there this spring.

      In Ohio, I think they’re easy to find:
      1. Youngstown/Boardman, Ohio: I saw one at the golf course at Mill Creek Metro Park as we drove along W. Golf Drive.
      2. Sandy Ridge Reservation, North Ridgeville, Ohio is the location where Chris saw the fighting woodpeckers.

  2. Surprised to see one of my really OLD photos here(well before my better camera)…but I did have it here 2x and also a year with an immature fledgling…it’s been many years since this…would be nice if they would come back…

    4-5 Monarchs yesterday…they are on the move…..

  3. In May of this year, my friend Cris Hamilton and I visited a park in the Toledo area called Oak Openings. The red-headed woodpecker sightings we had there were incredible–there were so many of them! It was a shock because we’ve had very few sightings of them at home in southwestern PA. We were also surprised to see that the red-headed woodpecker was the only species of woodpecker we found there, and now I know why!

  4. SW Missouri…April, 2021. A red headed woodpecker arrived a few days ago and literally took over the bird feeding area in my back yard. He spent two days chasing five red bellies, ten blue jays, a host of downy woodpeckers, and other assorted birds. He adopted the tactic used by the ruby throated hummingbird…”no one eats at this feeding station but me! The red head left the other day as quickly as he had come, but darn he
    showed up again this morning. Unfortunately, as his usual self. Is this a passing event or will it carry over into summer?

    1. If he nests in your neighborhood he’ll keep it up during the breeding season and stop when his hormones abate. If he’s migrating he’ll move on soon.

  5. I have photos of a male and female downy woodpecker pair fighting with their feet locked together and wings flapping furiously.

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