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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Red-headed Woodpecker

Melanerpes erythrocephalus ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

The gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker is so boldly patterned it’s been called a “flying checkerboard,” with an entirely crimson head, a snow-white body, and half white, half inky black wings. These birds don’t act quite like most other woodpeckers: they’re adept at catching insects in the air, and they eat lots of acorns and beech nuts, often hiding away extra food in tree crevices for later. This magnificent species has declined severely in the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to its food supply.

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Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly large, rounded heads, short, stiff tails, and powerful, spike-like bills.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults have bright-red heads, white underparts, and black backs with large white patches in the wings, making the lower back appear all white when perched. Immatures have gray-brown heads, and the white wing patches show rows of black spots near the trailing edge.

  • Behavior

    In addition to catching insects by the normal woodpecker method of hammering at wood, Red-headed Woodpeckers also catch insects in flight and hunt for them on the ground. They also eat considerable amounts of fruit and seeds. Their raspy calls are shriller and scratchier than the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s.

  • Habitat

    Red-headed Woodpeckers live in pine savannahs and other open forests with clear understories. Open pine plantations, treerows in agricultural areas, and standing timber in beaver swamps and other wetlands all attract Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Range Map Help

Red-headed Woodpecker Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Boldly-patterned, medium-sized woodpecker
    • Scarlet red head
    • Bright white underparts
    • Solid black back with large white patch on wings
    • © A wing and a prayer, Bull Shoals, Arkansas, May 2012
  • Adult

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Stocky, compact woodpecker
    • Bright red head
    • Strikingly patterned with bright white underparts and black back
    • Large white patch on wings near tip
    • © Knowway, Canada, May 2011
  • Juvenile

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Juvenile
    • Stocky, medium-sized woodpecker
    • Bold white patch on wings contrasts with black back
    • Mostly white underparts with juvenile showing some smudgy gray streaking
    • Juvenile has dark gray/brown head
    • © Laura Erickson, Lake of the Ozarks State Park, Missouri, September 2011
  • Adult

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Stocky, boldly-patterned woodpecker
    • Bright red head
    • Bright white underparts contrast with solid black back
    • White rump and white patch on wings near tip
    • © Dave Boltz, Sky Meadows State Park, Delaplane, Virginia, May 2011
  • Adult

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Stocky, with large blocks of solid color
    • Rich, crimson-red head
    • Bright white underparts
    • Black back and wings with large white patch near wing-tips
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Joe Overstreet Rd, Florida, September 2011
  • Juvenile

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    Juvenile
    • Stocky, medium-sized woodpecker
    • Large white patch on wings
    • Solid black back
    • Juvenile shows grey/brown head, slowly transitioning to red
    • © Bill Majoros, July 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Pileated Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Much larger and longer-tailed than Red-headed Woodpecker
    • Distinctive crest
    • Red only on crest and chin stripe
    • Black underparts
    • © Marcus Sharpe, Winter Park, Florida, October 2009
  • Adult male

    Red-bellied Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Similar in size to Red-headed Woodpecker but with longer, more pointed bill
    • Black and white barring on back
    • Red only on crown, with pale, buffy face
    • © Laura Erickson, South Carolina, May 2010
  • Adult female

    Golden-fronted Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Similar in size and shape to Red-headed Woodpecker
    • Black and white barring on back
    • Mostly pale gray/brown head with golden patch on nape
    • Males show red patch on forehead
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, March 2011

Similar Species

Red-headed Woodpeckers are fairly easy to identify thanks to their large blocks of solid color. No other North American Woodpecker has an entirely red head and neck. Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers have barred black-and-white backs and show red only on the crown and forehead. Pileated Woodpeckers are much larger, with longer necks, than Red-headed Woodpeckers. The white patches visible in flight in a Pileated’s wings are toward the leading edge of the wing, and the trailing edge is black—the reverse of the Red-headed Woodpecker’s pattern.

Backyard Tips

Red-headed Woodpeckers occasionally visit feeders in winter, especially suet. They will eat seeds, corn, acorns, beechnuts, pecans, and many kinds of fruits (including apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, mulberries, and poison ivy fruits).

Find This Bird

Look for Red-headed Woodpeckers in scattered, open woodlots in agricultural areas, dead timber in swamps, or pine savannas. Walk slowly, listening for tapping or drumming, and keep your eyes alert for telltale flashes of black and white as these high-contrast woodpeckers fly in between perches. The red head can be hard to see in strong glare. Raucous, harsh weah! calls will also give away the presence of a Red-headed Woodpecker.

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