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Blane Klemek: Redheads are striking birds

What a spring it has been. What began as “The Winter That Keeps on Giving” has at last given way to full-blown springtime — and with it, the long awaited and much anticipated spring migration. Some readers have reported observing tree swallows and eastern bluebirds come and go.

This phenomenon is likely the result of a spring too cold for plentiful insects — read food for the birds — and the reason for the temporary exodus.

Reports from readers of rare sightings and not-so-common observations are still making their way to my Inbox, too. Several readers, including a DNR colleague of mine, continue to report seeing blackburnian warblers. Why this warbler has seemingly been showing up with apparent regularity is anyone’s guess, but lucky are those who have seen the beautiful, orange-throated male of this species of wood warbler.

Other interesting species of birds reported to me by readers and birders alike include white-faced ibis, northern cardinal, indigo bunting, orchard oriole, scarlet tanager, red-bellied woodpecker, northern shrike and even a northern mockingbird.  

But perhaps the most unusual, rare report and observation of all goes to Sherry and Chris Haley of Bemidji, who called to report the sighting of a painted bunting. Breeding range for this species is primarily throughout the majority of the Gulf Coast states, in addition to New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma and the Atlantic seaboard states. So naturally, seeing a painted bunting in Minnesota is rare. Sherry and Chris, who were lucky enough to observe the painted bunting, were also lucky enough to capture the species on camera.       

Another reader’s report came from the Detroit Lakes area where Kay Hartness wrote to tell me about the red-headed woodpecker she observed in her backyard on three different occasions. Such a striking woodpecker they are — what with their bright red head and black and white body and wing plumage — that seeing one is always memorable.

Indeed, as woodpeckers go, redheaded woodpeckers are a unique species of the nine that occur in Minnesota. Aside from the brilliant red head (the only woodpecker in North America with an all-red head, neck and throat) red-headed woodpeckers also sport jet-black backs and snow-white bellies, rumps and secondary wing feathers.  

 Like all woodpeckers, redheads have numerous anatomical features that lend themselves well to their mode of living: stiff tail feathers to help keep them propped upright against tree trunks, special arrangement of toes to assist gripping trees they peck upon and special tongues and chisel-like bills to help them capture food and excavate tree cavities. And though redheads can brag about having the most red-on-the-head of any woodpecker, nearly all males of each species have some amount of red on their heads. But in the case of redheads, both sexes are similar in appearance.

Watch redheaded woodpeckers for any length time and you’ll begin to notice behavioral differences that set them apart from other woodpeckers. Regarding the manner in which they capture insects, these interesting birds are bluebird-like in some ways and flycatcher-like in others.   

Given the opportunity to observe these somewhat rare birds hunt for prey is a treat. Redheaded woodpeckers will often divert from tree-trunk searches for food and fly unexpectedly into midair to nab flying insects as graceful as a flycatcher. They will also not hesitate to drop abruptly to the ground, like bluebirds, to capture unsuspecting moths, beetles, grasshoppers and other insects.

Moreover, redheads love caching food. Three other woodpeckers cache food for later consumption too, but redheaded woodpeckers have taken this interesting habit a step further. Redheads are the only woodpeckers that cover their food.

These birds stuff insects into the cracks and crevices of tree bark while working to cover and seal their foodstuffs with pieces of bark or twigs. Redheads have even been observed cramming live insects into fissures so tightly as to prevent the insects’ escape.

Redheaded woodpeckers also have a reputation for being fiercely territorial. They’ll readily and handedly chase other species of birds away from their home ranges and nest sites. Additionally, redheads are known to enter nests, tree cavities, and artificial nest boxes of other birds to remove or destroy the eggs — sometimes even the nestlings.

Their preferred habitat includes mostly deciduous oak woodlands, scattered and open woodlots and river bottoms and sometimes wetland areas with plenty of standing dead trees for nest sites. Good shares of these habitat components are frequently located in abundance throughout Minnesota’s farm and rangeland.    

As a boy on the farm, it was as commonplace for me to hear meadowlarks and bobolinks singing from the fields as it were to see redheaded woodpeckers propped against the trunks of our massive American elm trees. Many of those great elms were dead or dying, which worked to favor the snag-loving redheads.

I also recall sitting on the front steps of our house watching redheads fly to the corn crib to steal kernels from the fenced-in corn cobs and fly to nearby trees or utility poles to cache their foodstuffs. Summer after endless summer, I watched my favorite woodpeckers come and go.  

For many people the spring of 2013 has produced glimpses of a rare and unique avian observation. Perhaps you, too, have seen a rare bird, or have watched an old favorite, or you’ve observed a species you haven’t seen in awhile.

And maybe that bird is the redheaded woodpecker — or yet another species — as you and I get out and enjoy the great outdoors.   

— Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at