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Red-headed Woodpecker - December 2003 Species of the Month

This woodpecker is typically seen perched on tree trunks or limbs and its brightly colored red head can be thought of as festive decor against an evergreen background for the winter holiday season.


The red-headed woodpecker was a common species throughout the Northeast during the late 1700s through the early 1900s. Large concentrations of these birds, including flights of several hundred, were observed often during fall migration. During the past 50 years or so, counts of only two to eight birds were recorded as part of the annual migratory bird counts conducted by bird enthusiasts in Cape May. Decreasing numbers were also noted in other annual bird counts in the Northeast and it became evident that the red-headed woodpecker had suffered significant population declines in the past century. It was listed as a threatened species in New Jersey in 1979.

Red-headed woodpecker
Photo courtesy US FWS
The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) was the December Species of the Month, in honor of the 30th Anniversary of the New Jersey Endangered Species Conservation Act and the formation of DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP). It was the final species of the month in a series of 12 that have been highlighted to celebrate this special anniversary year.

Red-headed Woodpecker with food for young at nest in Pinelands
Photo by J.A. Spendelow, courtesy of USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Red-headed Woodpeckers Hanging On
("Knock on Wood!")

  • Red-headed woodpeckers range from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast, east of the Rocky Mountains and west of New England. Scientists believe that the migratory patterns of this species are driven by the availability of winter foods. In general, woodpeckers residing "up north" move south during the winter months.

  • By the turn of the 20th century red-headed woodpeckers in the Northeast had suffered population declines due to road mortality, competition with European starlings for nesting cavities, and harvesting for the fashion trade (many avian species were killed to provide feathers for women's hats). Farmers also killed them because they damaged fruit and berry crops.

  • More recent population declines resulted from habitat loss, road mortality and limited availability of nesting sites. Loss of breeding habitat and regional population declines in the Northeast led the National Audubon Society to recognize the red-headed woodpecker as a species of special concern since 1982. It is considered to be a rare species throughout the Northeast.

Red-headed Woodpeckers – Facts of Interest

  • The adult red-headed woodpecker is a robin-sized bird with a bright red head, throat and neck. The belly, undertail and rump are white. The species has a black tail, back and upperwing and a thin black stripe that runs between its red head and white belly.

  • This species of woodpecker inhabits woodland areas that contain dead or dying trees. Red-headed woodpeckers in southern New Jersey are found in mixed oak and pine forests that have a ground cover of huckleberry or blueberry. Those in northern New Jersey are found in upland or wetland forests. Preferred wintering areas include orchards and pine forests.

  • Red-headed woodpeckers are foragers typically seen on tree trunks and limbs. Their diet includes fruit, nuts, seeds, insects, small vertebrates, bird eggs and small birds. Unlike other woodpeckers, they rarely drill holes into wood for food. Instead, they gather nuts from the ground and store them in tree holes and crevices, fly through the air to catch insects, and collect insects from beneath bark and foliage.

  • Like other woodpeckers, the red-headed woodpecker has two toes on each foot that point forward and two that point backward. This arrangement of toes enables it to cling vertically to trees. In addition, the tail feathers are stiff and pointed, which help prop the woodpecker up against the side of the tree.
Ways You Can Help

  • As long as standing or collapsed dead trees or decomposing logs provide no hazard to nearby structures, people, roads or parking lots, consider allowing them to remain, as they may provide critical nesting habitat and foraging opportunities for red-headed woodpeckers.

  • Enjoy bird watching and birding? The DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program has joined up with the New Jersey Audubon Society to implement The New Jersey Important Bird and Birding Areas Program. This project will enlist the help of volunteer citizen scientists to identify and help protect a network of priority locations that must be conserved in order to sustain healthy, diverse bird populations. For more information visit the New Jersey Audubon Society's website about this program.

  • Participate in the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count! To learn more about this annual December activity and how it is being implemented in New Jersey this year, visit Audubon's website for this activity.

  • Want to volunteer? Enjoy giving presentations? Looking for speakers? The Division of Fish and Wildlife offers two opportunities:The Endangered and Nongame Species Program's Speakers Bureau and the Division's Wildlife Conservation Corps. Visit these sites for details.
Conserve Wildlife license plate
Order a Conserve Wildlife special interest license plate for your vehicle. It's tax-deductible, with 80% of the payment benefiting New Jersey's Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

Want to learn new information quickly about New Jersey wildlife? The Division of Fish and Wildlife offers eight E-mail "mailing list" choices to the public. Visit the E-mail List Subscription Page to learn more about this free service and how to sign up.

Additional Sources of Information

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Department of Environmental Protection
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Last Updated: October 6, 2004