The last time I saw a red-headed woodpecker was about 20 years ago in northern Beltrami County near Kelliher. That is, until just a few days ago here at home next to Assawa Lake, where a lone red-headed woodpecker spent about 10 minutes scaling a couple of bur oak trees in the backyard.
Observing the beautiful bird took me back to my boyhood days on my family’s Otter Tail County dairy farm, where it was commonplace to see this beautiful woodpecker.
Watch red-headed woodpeckers for any length of 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 flycatcher-like in some ways, while sharing hunting styles characteristic of all woodpeckers. Of all woodpeckers, no other woodpecker is as adept at capturing insects on the wing.
Given the lucky opportunity to observe these somewhat rare birds hunt for prey is a treat. Red-headed woodpeckers will often divert from tree-trunk searches for food. They will fly unexpectedly, as graceful as a flycatcher, into mid-air to nab flying insects.
They will also not hesitate to drop abruptly to the ground, like bluebirds, to capture unsuspecting moths, beetles, grasshoppers and other insects. Another behavior that they’re noted for is sitting still for long periods of time. Ever watchful, red-headed woodpeckers will remain motionless as they scan their environment for food.
Red-headed woodpeckers are also skilled at caching food. Only three other North American woodpeckers cache food, but red-headed woodpeckers have taken this interesting habit one step further -- they’re the only woodpecker that covers their food.
Red-headed woodpeckers stuff insects into the cracks and crevices of tree bark while working to cover and seal their foodstuffs with pieces of bark or twigs. They’ve even been observed cramming live insects into fissures so tightly as to prevent the insects’ escape.
Red-headed woodpeckers also have a reputation for being fiercely territorial. They’ll readily and handily chase other species of birds away from their home ranges and nest sites. Additionally, red-heads 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 central to southern Minnesota’s farm and rangeland.
As is the case for many species of wildlife, the drastic decline of Minnesota’s red-headed woodpecker population can be attributed to habitat loss and destruction -- mainly oak savannas, which are considered the species’ prime and preferred habitat.
As such, it’s likely no mystery that observing red-headed woodpeckers is a rarity given the stark statistic from the North American Breeding Bird Survey: this species has declined by over 2% per year since 1966 and has had a cumulative population decline of 70%. Many watch lists of birds in greatest conservation need to list red-headed woodpeckers as a species nearing threatened or endangered status without conservation action.
Despite population declines, it should come as no surprise that we don’t see many red-headed woodpeckers here in northwest Minnesota because, after all, the species’ primary breeding range is further south; that only includes the southern third of the state, as the species is largely a woodpecker of the eastern United States.
Belonging to a large genus of woodpeckers, which includes the familiar and close relative red-bellied woodpecker, no other North American woodpecker shares the striking blend of black, white and red plumage as the red-headed woodpecker does.
With a changing climate -- and a projected change in forest types in northern Minnesota to a red-headed woodpecker-preferred oak forest-type -- maybe red-headed woodpeckers will become more abundant in the future. While we can’t be for certain about this, what can be said is that this special species of woodpecker still calls Minnesota home as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.