Is this a gorgeous bird, or what?! My trip to The Heard last weekend was a treat, topped off by a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) who flew amongst the trees in the wetland area. You gotta love a red-head! I’ve seen a red-head one other time, at this same place, last year. I captured better images this time, and am excited to share them. When I looked in my antique bird guide, guess who I found on the cover?
I’ve got the “covergirl”! The male and female look alike, so I guess this could also be the male, checking out the accommodations for his mate. I absolutely love to to read the species accounts from this old guide – it offers insight into the status of the species 100 years ago, and generally offers a more personal viewpoint. Here is the red-head entry:
The artwork shows an adult in full red-headedness, and a young red-head before he gets his bright adult plumage. In case you cannot read the species account from the image, it says:
This very handsome species is common and very well known in the Middle and Central States. They are the ruffians of the family, very noisy and quarrelsome. One of their worst traits is the devouring of the eggs and young of other birds. To partially offset this, they also eat insects and grubs and a great deal of fruit.1
Red-headed Woodpeckers make their nests in dead trees, and are not known to use nest boxes. This means that those old, dead-but-still-standing trees (snags), are vital to this bird’s survival. As for food, these birds are omnivorous, consuming insects, nuts, seeds, grubs, worms, berries, fruit – and yes, sometimes other young birds and eggs. 3 It stands to reason, that the biggest factor in their declining numbers is habitat loss, specifically – the snags.
This red-head is probably a male, since the males excavate the nest. I cannot make out exactly what he is removing – but it looks like a piece of wood or bark.
This is a “snag” – those old, dead trees that are so valuable to this species. Red-headed Woodpeckers aren’t the only species to nest in snags, so if you have a snag on your property, I hope you’ll leave it right where it is!
This species account is from another old bird guide, “The Yellow Book of Birds of America.”4 This is one of a select number of species to get a 2-page layout in this small book. This book makes the only reference to this bird as a “flag bird,” saying, “In some lights the black shows a bluish tint, and the bird is sometimes called the red-white-and-blue bird, or flag bird.” You will notice that both accounts from these old guides underscore how the red-head makes up for his more dastardly eating habits by also eating a great deal of pest-class insects and grubs.
The honor of the book-cover in one guide, and a two-page layout in the other suggest a real fondness for the Red-headed Woodpecker. It makes me sad to learn that their numbers have been declining. It further underscores the simple fact that as human populations increase, many other species decrease. It is my great hope that we recognize the effect that we have on the planet, and continue to find ways to live cleaner and less consumptive lives, so that the planet can support a healthy and robust biodiversity.
Speaking of red-heads, healthy, and robust…you gotta love this red-head too!5
- Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies, by Chester K. Reed, Copyright © 1909, Published by A.M. Eddy, Albion, NY ↩
- BirdLife International 2008. Melanerpes erythrocephalus. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.1. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 04 April 2010. ↩
- Birds of Texas, by Keith A. Arnold and Gregory Kennedy, Copyright ©2007, Published by Lone Pine Publishing International Inc. ↩
- The Yellow Book of Birds of America, by Frank G Ashbrook, Illustrations by Paul Moller, Copyright © 1931, Published by Whitman Publishing Company ↩
- shameless plug for one of my favorite shows, Mad Men, on AMC. ↩