Red-headed Woodpecker Population Biology

Red-headed woodpeckers are striking birds to watch because of their bold coloration and their conspicuous behavior. During the spring and summer red-head pairs will defend a territory for breeding and can be seen fly-catching to provide food for nestlings. However, I think their behavior from fall to early spring is the most interesting. In late summer red-heads set up individual territories to protect stores of acorns that they collect during the fall and that they live on until insects come out the next spring. They vigorously defend their acorn stores against members of the same species and other species that eat acorns such as chickadees, titmice, and other woodpeckers.

I developed an interest in red-headed woodpeckers while working on my Masters degree at the University of Arkansas. One fall day in Arkansas I was in a wood lot that was packed with red-head territories when I saw a pileated woodpecker fly into the wood lot from an open field. Pileated woodpeckers are crow-sized birds that also have a striking appearance. As the pileated entered the wood lot, I could hear a red-head give loud quirr calls as it chased the much larger pileated woodpecker across its territory. When the red-head reached the end of its territory, it stopped and the bird whose territory adjoined the first bird's picked up where number one left off. And so it went, all the way across the wood lot; one red-head giving the larger pileated all he could handle and passing the baton to the next red-head until the pileated was driven out of the wood lot. However, this response was tame compared to what happened when I heard a winter flock of chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers--about 20 birds in all--cross the wood lot. The red-heads raced around their territories, frantically trying to protect their acorn stores. I've rarely seen birds as agitated as the red-heads were trying to fend off that many birds at one time.

Despite their conspicuous appearance and behavior, red-headed woodpecker sightings are declining in the Carolinas. Red-heads prefer open deciduous woods, preferably with plenty of oaks nearby. Therefore, they are often seen in parks, golf courses or around farms. Red-headed woodpecker populations are declining in the Carolinas and in other parts of its range. Rural areas where open hardwood forests were once abundant are being converted to manicured subdivisions. During development the standing dead trees, or snags, that the woodpeckers use to nest, roost and store acorns in are usually cut down. Snags are a critical component of the bird's habitat and are probably an important factor in the decline of the red-headed woodpecker.

The red-headed woodpecker is not a well studied bird. A smattering of studies have looked at winter territorial behavior, nut-caching behavior, and breeding behavior, but there are many gaps in our knowledge of this bird. Of particular concern given the red-head's current decline are habitat preferences and population behavior. I am in the early stages of developing a project to address these two aspects of red-headed woodpecker biology. I would like to answer the following questions: What habitat factors are of critical importance to red-headed woodpeckers, and how does degradation of habitat affect breeding and survival? To what degree do red-headed woodpeckers return to the same breeding and wintering grounds every year? What effect does acorn crop size have on site fidelity, and how far do woodpeckers go to find winter food sources when acorn crops fail? How can we manage golf courses, parks and other sources of woodpecker habitat to maintain healthy populations and reverse the decline of the red-headed woodpecker?

The woodpecker project is off to a slow start. Teaching and other research activities are keeping me very busy. I am currently conducting some preliminary work, but a full-blown study is not yet forthcoming. In the mean time I am locating as many red-headed woodpecker nests and roosts as possible. I'm focusing heavily on golf courses because I think they may play an important role in providing habitat for the birds. The first stages will probably involve collecting preliminary data on winter survival, breeding success, and nestling survival. If you would like to get involved, or know where we can find some red-headed woodpeckers, please contact me.

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Last updated August 1,  2009