A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker resting on a branch
Red-headed Woodpecker with insects in its beak
19cm to 24cm
30cm to 37cm
56g to 91g
Male and female red-headed woodpeckers are identical in appearance. Both sexes have a crimson red head and neck that extends to the shoulders and is separated from the breast by a narrow black collar. Their back and tail are black, while their breast, belly, and rump are white. Their wings are black with a large white patch along the rear edge, which is also visible when folded.
Their bills are bluish-gray, and their eyes are a dark reddish brown. Legs and feet are greenish-gray.
Juvenile red-headed woodpeckers are similar to adults in markings, but coloring does not fully develop until during its first winter. Until then, they are mostly dusky brown and white, with a brownish head streaked with some red. The bill of a juvenile is duller gray than that of an adult.
Check out our guide to read more about Red-headed Woodpeckers' male versus female identification.
Red-headed Woodpecker sitting on a branch
Red-headed woodpeckers are relatively small woodpeckers, up to half the size of a pileated woodpecker. There is no difference in size between males and females.
Red-headed Woodpecker perched on a broken tree trunk
Drumming and tapping are arguably the most famous sounds associated with red-headed woodpeckers, and are heard particularly early on in the breeding season, but may continue to resonate through woodlands at times of conflict or communication between nesting pairs.
Vocal sounds include a ‘churr-churr’ as a flight call or contact call and a rattling alarm call. Chattering calls are heard between pairs as they change shifts when incubating or when returning to the nest to feed young.
Red-headed Woodpecker in park
The red-headed woodpecker has a varied diet, including insects, seeds, berries, fruit, and nuts, as well as occasionally feeding on small rodents and the eggs of other woodland birds. Plant-based foods represent around two-thirds of their diet.
In winter acorns and beech nuts are particularly important, while in summer, cultivated and wild fruits, such as grapes, strawberries, mulberries and ivy.
Red-headed woodpeckers cache food for future meals, hiding it beneath the bark and in cracks and cavities in tree branches and trunks. They revisit these food stores in winter when local food resources may be running low. They also catch passing insects in flight or by foraging on the ground.
Young red-headed woodpeckers are fed in the nest by their parents, who bring insects, spiders, worms, fruit (especially mulberries and cherries), grasshoppers and larvae.
Red-headed Woodpecker in berry tree
Woodlands offer suitable nesting and foraging habitats for red-headed woodpeckers, although the species has adapted well to different landscapes, including parks, orchards, and forest groves. Mixed species woodlands and oak savannas are preferred, with dead and dying trees in which to build nest cavities, as well as open glades for catching insects.
In winter months, red-headed woodpeckers in urban locations may occasionally visit backyard feeders, particularly to feed on suet.
Red-headed woodpeckers are native to North America, and breed from southern Canada through the eastern and central parts of the United States, extending into the southeastern US.
To the south, the species is found in northern Florida, through Alabama, and west through Louisiana into Texas. Red-headed woodpeckers reach as far west as Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, but sightings become more scarce towards the Rocky Mountains.
The United States is home to most of the global population of red-headed woodpeckers, with smaller numbers breeding in southern regions of Canada. The species is not present outside of these two countries. Red-headed woodpeckers are especially abundant in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, with populations concentrated in Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio.
Recent population estimates for the species stand at up to 1.6 million individuals in North America, making them far less common than downy and red-bellied woodpeckers. In the 19th century, red-headed woodpeckers were significantly more numerous and widespread, but population decline due to habitat loss has contributed to their decline.
Red-headed Woodpecker foraging in natural habitat
The east and central regions of the US offer the best chances of red-headed woodpecker sightings, with concentrations in the southeastern coastal plain and in the Great Lakes region.
Semi-open landscapes with broken forest cover are ideal spots. Two sites that have regular reports of red-headed woodpeckers are Necedah National Wildlife Reserve in Wisconsin and Cedar Creek Reserve in Minnesota.
Canada’s red-headed woodpeckers are summer breeding visitors and are concentrated in the southern regions, in particular southern Ontario and southern Manitoba. They are relatively widespread in these areas, but sightings are uncommon and none remain in the country during winter months.
Red-headed Woodpecker sitting in a tree in natural habitat
The average estimated lifespan for a red-headed woodpecker is around 9 years. The oldest individual recorded reached 9 years 11 months. First-time breeding is at 1 year old.
Red-headed woodpeckers’ nests are commonly predated by snakes, raccoons and squirrels. Sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, Eastern screech owls, and red foxes prey on adult birds.
Red-headed woodpeckers are safeguarded under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 in the US and by Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1994. Under this legislation, it is illegal to knowingly kill or injure a red-headed woodpecker or to trap or trade individuals, disturb their nests or take their eggs or young.
Between 2004 and 2018 red-headed woodpeckers were classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, due to a decline of 65 percent in population since the 1970s. However, habitat management has led to a recovery, and in 2018, they were reclassified as a species of least concern.
Red-headed Woodpecker perching on a branch
Red-headed woodpeckers are cavity nesters and excavate their own nesting hollows in the trunks of dead trees or rotting sections of living trees. The male selects the site, and the pair work together to drill out a suitable chamber, with a round entrance hole, usually between 7 m and 12 m (25 ft to 40 ft) above the ground.
Red-headed woodpeckers are more likely than many other woodpecker species to use a ready-made chamber excavated by another pair and may reuse a nest they have successfully raised young in a previous season.
Nest construction begins as early as February, although red-headed woodpeckers are one of the later woodpecker species to begin laying each year, with the earliest eggs laid from April onwards, and late May being the peak. Some pairs raise two broods successfully, in which cases, the latest fledglings are ready to leave the nest in August or September.
Incubation lasts 12 to 14 days, shared between the male and female, with the male taking responsibility for the overnight shift. Young red-headed woodpeckers are ready to fledge when they are 24 to 31 days old and are able to fend for themselves almost immediately after fledging.
Red-headed woodpeckers’ eggs are pure white in color and rounded in shape, measuring 25 mm by 19 mm (1 in by 0.7 in). A typical clutch contains between 4 and 7 eggs, although as many as 10 may be laid and successfully hatched.
During the breeding season, red-headed woodpeckers form monogamous pairings, remaining together until their young have fledged. Once the nesting season ends, pairs separate, and in the subsequent years, it’s likely they will select a new mate to breed with.
Red-headed Woodpecker bringing food to the nest to feed its young
Red-headed woodpeckers display aggressive behavior around the nest site when intruders approach and when defending a mate or a territory. Confrontational behavior includes head bobbing and posturing with drooping wings and an erect tail to intimidate any threats.
Overnight solitary roosting takes place in the upper branches of tall trees or out of the breeding season, abandoned nest cavities may be used to shelter in particularly cold or wet weather.
Red-headed Woodpecker resting on a branch
A partially migratory species, red-headed woodpeckers are mostly resident all year round in the eastern and southern parts of their range, but some movement occurs each year in populations that breed to the north and west.
Migration is usually determined by the availability of acorns and beechnuts during winter months, and in years where crops are plentiful, red-headed woodpeckers may remain in the same areas in which they raised their young.
Red-headed woodpeckers are a native US species, with a large resident range in the eastern United States, and breeding grounds found further towards the center of the country. The species is not found in the western regions of North America and is particularly concentrated in the northeast.
Red-headed Woodpecker in-flight
Red-headed woodpeckers are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which makes it an offense to kill, injure, trade, or trap an individual bird, or damage or destroy a nest, eggs, or young without a license.
In winter months, red-headed woodpeckers have been known to visit backyard feeders where they are observed to be particularly fond of suet. Pecans, seeds, beechnuts, acorns, and soft fruits, including blackberries, cherries, and raspberries, may also work well at enticing red-headed visitors.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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