Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), named for their brilliant crimson head and upper body, are among the most distinctive members of the woodpecker family.
But do both males and female red-headed woodpeckers share this unmistakable plumage, or like several other woodpecker species, do females have a less remarkable appearance?
Red-headed woodpeckers are what is known as sexually monomorphic. This means that it is visually impossible to distinguish between male and females as their plumage is identical and they are the same size. According to research, the only way of accurately being able to tell whether a red-headed woodpecker is male or female is by DNA testing.
During the breeding season, there may be some subtle clues in the birds’ behavior as to whether it’s a male or a female you have spotted.
At the start of the breeding season, male red-headed woodpeckers noisily drum and call to establish a territory and attract a mate. The male selects a suitable nest site – frequently in or near to a cavity he may have occupied during an earlier winter – and seeks the female’s approval, which she gives by tapping around the chosen spot with her long bill.
The subsequent excavation of the nest cavity is the male’s job. So if you spot a red-headed woodpecker hard at work, hollowing out a branch or part of a trunk early in the breeding season, the chances are it’s the male rather than the female, who is likely resting nearby.
A pair of red-headed woodpeckers
Female red-headed woodpeckers, like the males of the species, are very distinctive, with their bold plumage making them easy to identify, even from a fair distance away. They have crimson-red breasts, heads, throats, and chins. Their bodies are plain white, and their backs and wings are half black and half white, leading to them being dubbed a “flying chequerboard” or “flag bird” by some.
Males and females are roughly the same size and weight, with typical female measurements within the range below:
Like the male’s, the female red-headed woodpecker’s bill is a blueish-gray shade, darkening towards the tip. Both females and males have dark reddish-brown eyes, and greenish-gray legs.
Close up of a perched Red-headed Woodpecker
Female red-headed woodpeckers do have very distinctive bright crimson heads. Juvenile male and female red-headed woodpeckers initially have a mottled brown plumage, but pale red feathers begin to develop on their heads during their first fall and winter.
There are no records of a specific name given to female red-headed woodpeckers. In general, females of most types of birds – including woodpeckers – are called hens, with the males known as cocks.
Female and male red-headed woodpeckers are roughly the same size and weight.
Red-headed woodpecker perched on the side of a tree trunk
Few red-headed woodpeckers have been banded, and therefore there is not a wealth of observations or research into behavioral differences between the sexes.
Males, females, and juvenile red-headed woodpeckers are highly territorial, and outside of the breeding season, they tend to be solitary birds, each defending its own distinct territory.
Female red-headed woodpeckers are observed to be less vocal than male birds. Males and females both engage in drumming and tapping, particularly during courtship, although more frequently in the case of males.
Tapping appears to be used as a form of communication between the two, with the female tapping on the wall of the nest cavity to signal to the male that it is his turn to take over with brooding duties.
A pair of nesting red-headed woodpeckers
After pairing up, the male red-headed woodpecker will select a potential nesting site, which then is given the seal of approval by the female tapping around the proposed spot. The male works alone to hollow out a cavity in the chosen branch or trunk, while the female rests nearby.
The female red-headed woodpecker lays 3 to 7 eggs in late April to June. Males and females share incubation duties, with males taking responsibility for sitting on the eggs overnight. Females tap on the inside of the nest cavity to indicate that it’s time for the male to take over.
Although in the initial period after hatching, feeding of chicks is shared evenly between the male and female, after the first 12 days the female will take over the majority of care. By this point, the male may be busy preparing a new nest cavity for a second brood.
Males and females follow the same diet, with both sexes foraging for insects, especially beetles, and cultivated and wild fruits including apples, pears, cherries, and mulberries. Unlike typical woodpecker species, male and female red-headed woodpeckers are skilled at catching insects in flight, similar to flycatchers. Studies show that males and females may forage in different microhabitats to maximize food resources.
Both males and females have been observed to cache food, including acorns, grasshoppers and beechnuts in crevices on trees and cover them with bark for future consumption.
Some research has been undertaken into the eating of grit by male and female red-headed woodpeckers, with female birds found to have marginally larger amounts of grit in their stomach contents.
Red-headed Woodpecker bring back food for the chicks in the cavity nest
Female red-headed woodpeckers share nesting and hatchling care duties with the males. Males take the largest share of overnight incubation and brooding.
Feeding of hatchlings is initially evenly divided between the male and female red-headed woodpecker. However, within two weeks of hatching, the females are responsible for around 75 percent of feeding duties for the chicks, so theoretically it is possible for a female to step up and assume 100 percent of the care.
One anecdotal example that backs up the theory that a female may attempt to incubate eggs and raise chicks alone describes a female red-headed woodpecker whose mate died inside the nest cavity. The female then laid her eggs on top of his carcass.
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