Red-headed Woodpecker

What do Red-headed Woodpeckers Look Like?

Physical appearance

      Photo by Michael Hogan

Red-headed Woodpeckers are a medium-sized woodpecker with length around 19.4-23.5 cm and a mass of 56-91 g. Adult birds are unmistakable with a crimson red hood from the head to upper breast, a stark contrast to the bright white belly and black back and wings. (Fun fact: your favorite cartoon bird - Woody Woodpecker - is a Red-headed Woodpecker!). In flight it appears to have unusually long wings for its size, with an eye catching the flash of white and black.

Male and female Red-headed Woodpeckers are identical and even from up close experts can't tell the difference! Juvenile birds (young birds that have left the nest late in summer) lack the crimson cap of the adults and have a grayish head instead. Other than that they are the same size of their parents once they fledge (leave) from the nest. 

Possible look-a-likes

Although Red-headed Woodpeckers clearly earned their name with their bright red head, unfortunately many other species of woodpeckers, especially the males, also have red somewhere on their heads! Here are some other woodpeckers that you might confuse for the Red-headed Woodpecker.

Where Do Red-headed Woodpeckers Live?


Red-headed Woodpeckers are found is southern Canada and east-central United States. In the northern part of their range they are only present in summer for breeding and return south for the winter. Their movement patterns in winter are quite sporadic as they follow the patterns of the oak and beech tree hard mast (nut) production

Distribution map of Red-headed Woodpeckers from the Birds of North America Online

The distribution map from Birds of North America Online

Red-headed Woodpeckers and their Habitats in Ontario

Unlike many other woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers are not found 'deep in the woods' . They prefer more open woods or wooded areas, perhaps due to their unique fly-catching tendencies. In Ontario, we have found them to be in one of three distinct habitats. These are (1) deciduous woodlots,(2) treed pastures and (3) treed urban areas. 

Unlike many other woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers are not found 'deep in the woods' . They prefer more open woods or wooded areas, perhaps due to their unique fly-catching tendencies. In Ontario, we have found them to be in one of three distinct habitats. These are (1) deciduous woodlots,(2) treed pastures and (3) treed urban areas. 

Deciduous woodlot in Centreton, Ontario

      Photo by Barbara Frei

Cow pastures in Roseneath, Ontario

Photo by Barbara Frei

Grazed areas with scattered trees and snags emulate the open savannas that have largely disappeared from Ontario. These open areas give Red-headed Woodpeckers plenty of room to fly around and places to perch out in the open, as is their preference. 

Several older urban areas, such as downtown Coburg on the north shore of Lake Ontario, have streets lined with beautiful old maple or other deciduous trees. These trees often have dead limbs perfect for nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers. Unfortunately, dead branches are seen as unsightly or unsafe by the ctiies and towns and are promptly removed, before Red-headed Woodpeckers have a chance to nest.

Downtown Cobourg, Ontario

Photo by Barbara Frei

Red-headed Woodpeckers Ecology

What do Red-headed Woodpeckers eat?

The feeding habits of Red-headed Woodpeckers is a complex and fascinating story. Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered the most omnivorous in North America. They eat a variety of plant and animal material and this foraging diversity allows them to make their home in smaller woodlots than other woodpeckers. 

Red-headed Woodpeckers are also 1 of only 4 species of woodpeckers worldwide (there are 198 species total) that commonly store food AND the only species that is known to cover its food once stored! This includes fitting nuts, corn or acorns into natural cracks or crevices of trees, post or anywhere else they can fit them. Grasshoppers are regularly stored alive, wedged into a crack so tight that they can't escape. Nuts and pine cones that are too tough to open are often brought to an 'anvil' site to be broken by dropping on a hard surface. Red-headed Woodpeckers have even been observed to put objects on roads and wait to have passing cars do the work for them! 

As a food type becomes available (e.g. fruiting tree or ripened nuts), Red-headed Woodpeckers work tirelessly to collect and store the food source before it is discovered by other would-be diners. They first act as larder hoarders, storing the majority of their goodies in one place. Later on, they tend to scatter-hoard, or redistribute their food supply in many different places. This helps prevent other critters of discovering and stealing their hard earned goods. 

In spring and summer, when there isn't many fruits and nuts yet available, Red-headed Woodpeckers are thought to rely heavily on yet another, unique source of food - aerial insects. They are the only woodpecker in North America known to catch aerial insects 'on the wing' (i.e. in the air). Woodpeckers are built for strength with chunky bodies, and big heads and strong bills. This allows them to excavate cavities and cling to trees. Therefore they are not 'made' to be the most graceful in the air, unlike the other aerial insectivore birds such as the swallows and swifts. But the Red-headed Woodpecker does so with surprising agility and style. Perched out in the open, on the dead branches of a tree, they swoop out into the air to catch passing insects, a movement called 'hawking'.  

Red-headed Woodpecker feeding its young sour cherries from the neighbors backyard

    Photo by Barbara Frei

Red-headed Woodpecker storing an earthworm atop a utility pole within its territory

Photo by Sophie Gibbs

Red-headed Woodpecker with a winged insect returning to nest

  Photo by Ed Post  

When and Where do Red-headed Woodpeckers Nest?

Red-headed Woodpeckers return to Ontario in early to mid May. They appear to show high site-fidelity, in that they tend to return to the same nesting site year after year, especially if they were successful the year prior. 

Once a male and female undergo courtship, of which not many details are known, a nest site is selected . It appears that the male select the site and the female taps the area to possibly signal her approval. Both the male and female woodpeckers take part in nest building, although the male does most of the excavation. It can take 12 - 17 days to fully excavate the nest hole. 

Red-headed Woodpeckers prefer to nest high up (13+ m) in dead deciduous trees or dead branches of live trees. They often choose to excavate holes where the bark has fallen off, perhaps to make it harder for predators to climb to the nest.  They also like to nest near the edge of a woodlot or near clearings where there is open areas for them to flycatch for passing insects. 

Red-headed Woodpecker excavating fresh nest hole  

 Photo by Sophie Gibbs 

Egg Laying and Nestlings


By late May, female Red-headed Woodpecker begin to lay eggs in the excavated cavity the pair built. No nesting material is brought to the nest; eggs are simply laid at the bottom on the wood or wood chips that gathered. Eggs are laid one per day, usually first thing in the morning, to a total of (typically) 4-7 eggs. After the last egg is laid, males and females take turns incubating the eggs for 12 to 14 days. During the day the male and female switch roles around every 20-30 minutes. While one is in the nest the other flies around the territory to feed. When the one feeding returns to the nest it often gives a chatter as it approaches, signaling its return. This causes the partner to poke its head out the nest and return the chatter before it quickly hops out and the other takes it's place. The switch can be done in 10 seconds or less.

Red-headed Woodpecker pair performing a quick switch of incubation duties

Photos by Sophie Gibbs

Once eggs hatch the young birds will stay in the nest for 27-30 days. During this time the parents spend all their time feeding or brooding the young. The young hatch with their eyes closed and naked except for sparse tuffs of down. Very little is known about the patterns of Red-headed Woodpecker nestling growth. The pictures on the right are some of the first available images of nestling Red-headed Woodpecker. These follow the growth of a brood of Red-headed Woodpecker nestling in Roseneath, Ontario in 2010. Adults clean the nest by removing or eating the eggshells and fecal sacs of young. By the second week the nestlings show signs of feather tracks (growing feathers) and their eyes are opening. They overall show slow nestling growth - as seen in the Day 18 picture the eyes are still not fully open. By the third week the young's eyes are fully open and they have distinct feathers. At this time they can be heard peeping and calling from the nest, especially when a adult bird arrives to feed. 

Red-headed Woodpecker eggs

Red-headed Woodpecker young Day 1

Red-headed Woodpecker young Day 4

Red-headed Woodpecker young Day 18

Red-headed Woodpecker young Day 22

Red-headed Woodpecker young Day 27


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