The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 21, 2008


Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a very unusual bird for Carlisle. Its normal range covers much of the eastern half of the U.S. but not Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine
This juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker is just beginning to show some red at its throat. (Photo by Tom Brownrigg)

where only isolated occurrences have been noted.

Leslie Thomas spotted this one at a sunflower seed feeder in her yard on Estabrook Road on November 17. It stayed around all afternoon and visited other feeders in the yard. It was back again on November 18. Mass Audubon has only three other sightings listed for the state in the last 30 days; one in Truro on October 22, one in Holliston on October 24, and one at Fresh Pond in Cambridge on October 27. The previous known sightings in Carlisle are from Ken Harte – one on November 22, 1970 (a juvenile at his feeder on Estabrook Road, staying all afternoon but gone the next day), and another on May 12, 1973 (an adult at the Towle Land, which unfortunately was not seen the next day on the annual bird walk.) Although never seen in Carlisle on the Christmas Bird Count, one was recorded on the Concord Christmas Count in 1962 and two in 1978.

Name. The Red-headed Woodpecker is Melanerpes erythrocephalus. The scientific name is a bit fearsome until you break it down. The genus name comes from the Greek words melanos meaning black and herpes meaning a creeper. The bird does have a black tail and a lot of black on its wings. It also has two toes forward and two toes back that allow it to creep up and down tree trunks like other woodpeckers. The species name, erythrocephalus, is from erythro meaning red and cephalus meaning head. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is in the same genus, Melanerpes.

Distinguishing characteristics. The most striking feature of the adult Red-headed Woodpecker is the fire-engine red of its whole head, face and neck. This one on Estabrook Road was a juvenile, so its head was mainly brown with just little bits of red starting to show on the throat and the back of the head.

Both adults and juveniles have prominent white patches on the wings (in the secondaries) in sharp contrast to the black of the rest of the wing. The breast and belly are white. The adult is about the same length from tip of bill to tip of tail as the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker at around nine inches. This is more than two inches longer than our more common woodpecker, the downy. It has a wider wingspan, at 17 inches, than the woodpeckers of similar body length.

Food. Woodpeckers in general are fond of suet and are frequent visitors to suet feeders. This particular bird was more interested in sunflower seeds and did not visit the suet feeder. Left to their own devices they are quite omniverous, feeding on acorns, beechnuts, fruit and berries, insects, other birds’eggs, nestlings and mice. Like a few other woodpeckers they are known to store food but they are the only ones that cover the cache with bits of wood or bark. They are also known to catch grasshoppers and store them alive by wedging them so tightly into crevices that they are captive.

Will we see more? Red-headed Woodpeckers used to be a more frequent sight. In Birds of Masschusetts there is a report that “in the fall of 1881 they literally swarmed about in Cambridge and Boston” and in the early fall of 1894, “a flock of 50 spent several weeks in the Springfield area,” but even back then these were not commonly repeated events. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that populations are declining in much of its current breeding range, but increasing in places where beaver activity has resulted in flooded areas with snags suitable for cavity-nesting birds.

This sighting may be an isolated occurrence or it could be the leading edge of expansion of the range. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, on the other hand, which are now seen often in Carlisle were not recorded prior to 1983. Harte saw the first one at his feeder on September 11, 1983, and now they are a regular feature in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

References. The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (search for Red-headed Woodpecker); Birds of Massachusetts by Veit & Petersen. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito