Red-headed Woodpecker - Melanerpes erythrocephalus
Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium sized woodpeckers averaging approximately 9.25 inches in length. Adults of both sexes have a bright red color on their entire head, neck and throat. The underparts are white and the back is a blue-black (National Geographic Society 1987). Red-headed Woodpeckers have a strikingly white rump patch and inner wing (secondaries) patches that are clearly visible in flight and while perched (Sibley 2000). Juveniles have an overall brown color to their head, neck and throat. They obtain the red during their first winter molt (National Geographic Society 1987).
The vocalization of the Red-headed Woodpecker is a wheezy "queeah"
contact call similar to the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus
), but weaker overall. They also have a low, harsh "chug"
call while in flight, also similar to the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Sibley 2000). Their drum is weak, short and slow.
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
The completely red head (in adults) and the white wing patches (on secondaries) are both diagnostic features separating the Red-headed Woodpecker from any other woodpecker. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is sometimes confused with, and given the same name as, the Red-headed Woodpecker. However, a close look will reveal no red on the throat or the sides of the head on the Red-bellied as well as a lack of white wing patches. The Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) is also superficially similar to the Red-headed Woodpecker. However, their ranges do not overlap and the sapsucker has white patterning on the back, rather than the all black back and white rump of the Red-headed Woodpecker (Smith et al. 2000).
Western Hemisphere Range
eBird Occurrence Map
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Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations:
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SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding
Indirect Evidence of Breeding
No Evidence of Breeding
WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Not Regularly Observed
(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)
Little information regarding migration of Red-headed Woodpeckers is known for Montana. Red-headed Woodpeckers are said to arrive in mid-May and leave in mid-September (Cameron 1907). Montana Bird Distribution (2012) confirms this during spring with reports of migratory observations in May. However, Montana Bird Distribution has no records of transience or migration in September. The latest observations for fall migration are in August (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). In fall, Red-headed Woodpeckers likely follow watercourses during their migration (Robbins and Easterla 1992), taking them east into North and South Dakota or southeast into Wyoming before they turn south heading for their wintering grounds in the Midwest and southern states. During spring migration, they probably follow these same watercourses into the state from areas further east and south.
With no systematic surveys completed within the state, little is known about Red-headed Woodpecker habitat in Montana. When they have been observed, they are usually found along major rivers having riparian forest associated with them. Another area where they may be found is open savannah country, as long as adequate ground cover, snags and canopy cover can be found. Large burns can also be utilized by the species (Bent 1939, Ehrlich et al. 1988). They nest in holes excavated 2 to 25 meters above ground by both sexes in live trees, dead stubs, utility poles, or fence posts. Sometimes they use existing holes in poles or posts. Individuals typically nest in the same tree or cavity in successive years (Ingold 1991).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
- Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
How Associations Were Made
We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
- Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.
In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.
However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if
point observations were associated with that system.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.
The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
Suggested Uses and Limitations
Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.
These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: mtnhp.org/requests
) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.
Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.
Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.
Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).
Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.
- Adams, R.A. 2003. Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 289 p.
- Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34. Missoula, MT.
- Foresman, K.R. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
- Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998. Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates. Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT. 1302 p.
- Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32. 72 p.
- Maxell, B.A. 2000. Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species. Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1. Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana. 161 p.
- Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and reptiles of Montana. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.
- Commonly Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Recently Disturbed or Modified
Wetland and Riparian Systems
- Occasionally Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Human Land Use
Wetland and Riparian Systems
Food habits have not been studied in Montana to date. Studies in other areas of the species' range reveal that Red-headed Woodpeckers eat insects and other invertebrates, berries and nuts, sap, and the young and eggs of birds. Often they will flycatch, or forage on the ground and in trees (dead wood) and shrubs. Animal food is about 50% of their diet. Rarely will they drill into trees for insects (Terres 1980). Red-headed Woodpeckers cache food items in crevices. Young are fed insects, worms, spiders, and berries.
No ecological information concerning Red-headed Woodpeckers exists for Montana. However, in other regions of their range, including Michigan, European Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) usurped 52% of Red-headed Woodpecker nest cavities (Ingold 1989). In Ohio, 15% of cavities were lost to European Starlings (Ingold 1994). Woodpeckers do not necessarily incur a reduction in fecundity because they may be able to renest successfully later in the season, though this is not without its problems (Ingold 1994). They exhibit high fidelity to the breeding site as 15 of 45 banded adults returned to the previous year's nest area (Ingold 1991); one male moved 1 kilometer between breeding seasons (Belson 1998).
Summer territories range from 3.1 to 8.5 hectares (Venables and Collopy 1989); winter territories are smaller, ranging only 0.17 hectare to 1 hectare (Williams and Batzli 1979, Venables and Collopy 1989, Moskovits 1978).
No specific information regarding Red-headed Woodpecker reproduction in Montana is currently available. However, information from other areas of the species breeding range, specifically the southeastern U.S. and Ohio, state that nests generally are initiated in early May (Ingold 1989, 1994). Clutch size is four to seven eggs (usually five). Incubation lasts about 14 days, by both sexes. Both parents tend young, and they leave the nest at about 27 days.
No known active management is ongoing for Red-headed Woodpeckers in the state. In fact, the species is virtually unmonitored in Montana (Casey 2000). Red-headed Woodpeckers are a Species of Management Concern in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 (USFWS 1995).
- Literature Cited AboveLegend: View Online Publication
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- Bent, A. C. 1939. Life histories of North American woodpeckers. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 174. Washington, D.C. 334 pp.
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- Ingold, D. J. 1989. Nesting phenology and competition for nest sites among red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers and European starlings. Auk 106:209-217.
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- Ingold, D.J. 1991. Nest-site fidelity in red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers. Wilson Bulletin 103(1):118.
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- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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