Red-headed Woodpecker Drinking from Birdbath

A young Red-headed Woodpecker continues to be active and usually easy to find around the same wooded yard near a creek where it’s been since early December. Almost every day I’ve walked past there since then, I’ve seen or heard it, regardless of the time of day. It seems to stay very close around this relatively small area.

This afternoon it flew from tree to tree as it usually does, flashing its contrasting white and black colors, and giving its rolling, churry calls frequently. Then it did something I haven’t seen it do before today – though it probably often does, I’m just not there to see it. It flew to a birdbath near the edge of the yard by the road, not far from where I stood, and sat on the rim of the birdbath for several moments, drinking water. It took several sips, each time leaning over to drink, then sitting up and looking around for several seconds before leaning down to drink again.

This is the closest and best view I’ve seen of this striking bird. Its brown head now has begun to turn red, especially on the throat and on the back of the neck. It’s still a long way from the brilliant crimson that will cover the whole head when it’s fully mature, but a deep-red color is beginning to spread. The crown still looks mostly brown, and the white breast still looks dingy and streaked, with black spots or streaks still prominent in the large white wing patches.

A mature Red-headed Woodpecker is a gorgeously colorful bird, with a full crimson head, snow-white body, and ink-black wings with large panels of white. Many decades ago, Red-headed Woodpeckers were common in towns and neighborhoods. I can remember seeing at least a few – maybe 25 or 30 years ago – in residential areas of Athens, Georgia, where I lived. But over the past 50 years, populations of Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined dramatically, and they now are found here only in certain areas, especially along river corridors or in wetlands, and they are far from common. The decline in their populations is thought to have occurred mainly because of habitat loss, especially loss of the nut-bearing trees, large dead trees and snags, and open-forest surroundings they need. So I feel lucky to have one here, at least for the winter.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are generally solitary during the winter months, but there’s still a great deal not known about their migratory patterns and behavior. They are described as a somewhat nomadic species, moving to follow their food sources. The species account in Birds of North America notes, “It is surprising how much basic information about this relatively common and easily identified species remains unknown.”*

* Kimberly G. Smith, James H. Withgott and Paul G. Rodewald. 2000. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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