Red-headed Woodpeckers out for the Bird Count

Today I was lucky enough to attend the Roxbury Park Bird Count in Meggett, South Carolina.  It was a blast to get to meet up with friends and volunteer my skills to assist the park.  During the count, we logged 75 species of birds, two of which being new visitors to the park.   I was surprised at the amount of red-headed woodpeckers we observed throughout the day.  Everywhere we looked we saw the iconic checkerboard white and black flitting through the park.  This is surprising because these birds are usually not nearly as common as many of the other woodpecker species (i.e. downy, red-bellied, yellow-bellied sapsucker).

Red-headed woodpeckers are named for their striking red heads.  They can be found in pine or pine-hardwood forests in their southern range, and in mixed hardwood forests farther to the north.  During their breeding season, these woodpeckers tend to shift more toward the forest edges or in stands of trees adjacent to disturbed areas (i.e. a neighborhood or agricultural field).  They find trees that are dead or dying.  The male first seeks out an area to nest, the female inspects the area and gives a few taps of approval, only then will the male excavate a nest cavity (proving that even in nature a man needs permission before doing anything).  These woodpeckers have also been known to build nests on power poles or nest in natural cavities.  They are very fun to watch, the males and females play a “hide and seek” ritual when courting each other.  They are extremely protective of their habitat and will push other birds out by picking fights with them, even if that bird is over double their size like the pileated woodpecker (red-headed woodpeckers are scrappy little birds).

These birds have a varied diet.  Their diet consists of insects, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  They are among the most skilled flycatching woodpeckers.  Red-headed woodpeckers have the ablility to catch insects on the wing, a talent that most other woodpecker species do not possess.  They have historically been a pest to farmers as well, ravenously gorging down their crops.   Interestingly, they also are one of only a few woodpecker species in North America that store their food for later use.  They are even known to stuff live grasshoppers in crevasses so tight that the stay alive, but can’t escape.

These birds are sadly on the decline in the US.  They are categorized as a Near Threatened species.  Studies show they declined at a rate of 2.2% a year between 1966-2010 and accumulated a nearly 70% overall decline within that time span.  It is believed the cause is due mostly to the decline of the worlds forests and the fact that many dead trees are rapidly cut down so they don’t do property damage (there was a tree recently cut down for that reason in my neighborhood which had red-headed woodpecker nests in it the last 2 years).  Also, many large nut trees were killed off in great chestnut blight in the early 1900’s taking away a large food source for these birds.  These woodpeckers were so abundant at one time that farmers would offer a bounty for carcasses.  A famous naturalist, John James Audubon, reported 100 birds shot from one cherry tree in one day.  Conservation for species like this are important, but until they become classified as Vulnerable they won’t get the attention they deserve (an organism isn’t considered “threatened or endangered” until they reach the vulnerable classification).  How you can help is by leaving dead snag trees in place if they are not at risk of causing damage.  Besides the red-headed woodpecker, you will be astounded at the amount of diversity that you will be able to see on that tree after it is dead.  These birds have been around for over 2 million years (we know this because there have been fossils of them found dating that far back) and I would hate to see them dwindle away. These are awesome birds and I am fortunate I got to see so many of them in such a healthy habitat. Thanks for reading!

More about these birds Click Here

Notes on the picture – I took this with my new Nikon D3300 Camera with 200mm zoom lens.  This was taken in terrible light from very far away,  I will try and get a better picture next time I come across this species and will post it as an update.  Thanks!!


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