Birds – Red-headed Woodpecker

(Melanerpes erythrocephalus) Woodpecker family

Called also : TRI-COLOR ; RED-HEAD

Length–8.50 to 9.75 inches. An inch or less smaller than the robin.

Male and Female—Head, neck, and throat crimson; breast and underneath white; back black and white; wings and tail blue black, with broad white band on wings conspicuous in flight.

Range—United States, east of Rocky Mountains and north to Manitoba.

Migrations—Abundant but irregular migrant. Most commonly seen in Autumn, and rarely resident.

In thinly populated sections, where there are few guns about, this is still one of the commonest as it is perhaps the most conspicuous member of the woodpecker family, but its striking glossy black-and-white body and its still more striking crimson head, flattened out against the side of a tree like a target, where it is feeding, have made it all too tempting a mark for the rifles of the sportsmen and the sling-shots of small boys. As if sufficient attention were not attracted to it by its plumage, it must needs keep up a noisy, guttural rattle, ker-r-ruck, ker-r-ruck, very like a tree-toad’s call, and flit about among the trees with the restlessness of a fly-catcher. Yet, in spite of these invitations for a shot to the passing gunner, it still multiplies in districts where nuts abound, being ” more common than the robin” about Washington, says John Burroughs.

All the familiar woodpeckers have two characteristics most prominently exemplified in this red-headed member of their tribe. The hairy, the downy, the crested, the red-bellied, the sapsucker, and the flicker have each a red mark somewhere about their heads as if they had been wounded there and bled a little—some more, some less ; and the figures of all of them, from much flattening against tree-trunks, have become high-shouldered and long-waisted.

The red-headed woodpecker selects, by preference, a partly decayed tree in which to excavate a hole for its nest, because the digging is easier, and the sawdust and chips make a softer lining than green wood. Both male and female take turns in this hollowing-out process. The one that is off duty is allowed ” twenty minutes for refreshments,” consisting of grubs, beetles, ripe apples or cherries, corn, or preferably beech-nuts. At a loving call from its mate in the hollow tree, it returns promptly to perform its share of the work, when the carefully observed ” time is up.” The heap of sawdust at the bottom of the hollow will eventually cradle from four to six glossy-white eggs.

This woodpecker has the thrifty habit of storing away nuts in the knot-holes of trees, between cracks in the bark, or in decayed fence rails—too often a convenient storehouse at which the squirrels may help themselves. But it is the black snake that enters the nest and eats the young family, and that is a more deadly foe than even the sportsman or the milliner.