May 11 – Woodn’t You?

Today’s Factismal: Insects make up less than a third of a red-headed woodpecker’s diet.

There is no bird more familiar to children of a certain age than Woody Woodpecker. This anthropomorphized version of a common but increasingly rare bird is true to life in one surprising way: most of what Woody eats isn’t bugs. Like its cartoon counterpart, the red-headed woodpecker (Meleanerpes erythocephalus in science speak, which translates as “black creeper with the red head”) feasts mainly on seeds, nuts and berries, with insects, small reptiles, and the occasional egg stolen from another bird’s nest to round things out. Interestingly, the red-headed woodpecker will store that food on a convenient tree branch and in cracks and crannies, covering it with wood or bark to hide it from other hungry birds.

An adult red-headed woodpecker (Image courtesy All About Birds)

An adult red-headed woodpecker
(Image courtesy All About Birds)

But no bird’s life is concerned only with food; building nests and filling them with eggs is also pretty important. And that is where the red-headed woodpecker has been both lucky and unlucky. At the turn of the last century, Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight killed millions of trees; the dead trees provided food for insects, which provided food for the wood peckers. More significantly, all of those dead trees provided perfect perches for woodpeckers who prefer to nest in small hollows surrounded by dead wood. The males and females will play peek-a-boo on the trees until they decide enough is enough and build the nest. The male selects the cavity and the female signals that it is in a good neighborhood they then take turns hollowing out the cavity until it is big enough for the nest.

A juvenile red-headed woodpecker (Image courtesy All About Birds)

A juvenile red-headed woodpecker
(Image courtesy All About Birds)

The nest soon fills with at least three eggs and sometimes as many as ten. Two weeks later, the eggs hatch into chicks that are screamingly hungry. For the next month, mom and dad take turns feeding the brood while the male also aggressively protects the nest from anything that he sees as a potential threat, from other birds to snakes to people. Once the first brood is out of the house, the pair don’t let empty nest syndrome set in; instead, they set about putting another brood into the nest.

Despite their fecundity, red-headed woodpeckers have declined more than 70% over the past century. Part of that is because of a loss of habitat; much of what was forest is now suburbs. And part of that is an unintended consequence of human progress; when red-headed woodpeckers nest in new telephone poles, the chicks rarely fledge, perhaps as a consequence of the creosote used to make the poles termite-proof. So where the birds used to be so plentiful that farmers offered a bounty, they are now so rare that seeing one is a treat.

If you happen to be lucky enough to see a red-headed woodpecker (or any other bird) in the Chicago area, then please head on over to Bird Conservation Network Census and let them know about it!

Or if you’d like to do a bird census in your neck of the woods, then head over to the USGS’ Breeding Bird Census page:

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