Red-Headed Woodpecker


Please forgive the appearance of the balding Red-headed Woodpecker in the photo above. He is having a 'bad feather day'. I'm not sure if he is molting, has mites, or has been scalped. Or maybe even shot at. Based on this beautiful bird's history, all of the noted options are possible. Yes, even the scalping.

Red-headed woodpeckers adore eating cherries. If you were to give them a big bowl of ice cream with a cherry on the top- they would eat the cherry and leave the ice cream. Unlike my kids- who would leave the cherry, and eat the ice cream.

Children delight in seeing the Red-headed Woodpecker. What's not to like about this Red-headed friend? They are fairly large (a little smaller than a crow), gregarious and conspicuous. Conspicuous, that is, when one can find one. Unfortunately, the Red-headed Woodpecker have been declining in population during the past 100 years and are now missing completely from many of their former habitats.

Consider, no less an authority than John James Audubon in his book Ornithological Biography :

It is impossible to form any estimate of the number of these birds seen in the United States during the summer months; but this much I may safely assert, more than an hundred have been shot upon a single cherry-tree in one day.


I have only seen a few Red-Headed Woodpeckers in my lifetime- so it is difficult to imagine more than 100 having been shot in ONE day from ONE tree. Audubon's book was published in 1832. In fact Audubon seemed apologetic while descibing the Red-Headed Woodpecker:

You have now, under consideration, a family of Woodpeckers, the general habits of which are so well known in our United States, that I assured of your having traversed the woods of America, I should feel disposed to say little about them.

Despite the numbers of the species during his time, I wonder if Audubon recognized the danger that this bird was in because of its fondness for fruit- especially cherries.

I would not recommend to any one to trust their fruit to
the Red-heads; for they not only feed on all kinds as they ripen, but destroy
immense quantity besides. No sooner are the cherries seen to redden than these
birds attack them. They arrive on all sides, coming from a distance of miles. . .Trees of this kind are stripped clean by them.

In the Ontario Agricultural's Report to the Commisioners in 1881, the Ontario Agicultural Commisioners recommended:

I don't think the law should protect them so stringently that parties should
not be allowed to shoot them, if they think it necessary to do so for the
protection of their crops.


It is interesting to note that this was an official govermental recommendation. I guess some things never change- economic interests almost always override environmental issues. Ontario's Agricultural recommendation wasn't an isoltated governmental ruling. In 1872, the Missouri State Board of Agriculture recommended that the Red-headed Woodpecker be added to a list that allowed for its killing:

Moved that a list to be made of those birds which should be destroyed as destructive to our fruit. Carried. On motion of Prof. Swallow, the Baltimore oriole, the orchard oriole, and the red-headed woodpecker were declared
nuisances. The Society then adjourned, to meet at 7 o'clock P.M. (source)


Agricultural concerns weren't the Red-head's only enemy. As the telegraph poles went up and spread across the country, the Red-headed Woodpecker began adopting them as a home. So, they were shot. It is reported that they made easy targets as the frequently returned to the same hunting perch.

The results of all of this killing? By 1897 (a scant 65 years after Audubon hesitantly wrote about such a common bird as the Red-headed Woodpecker), many began to note the decline of the Redheads. The following was published in an 1897 field guide of 200 popular birds:

This Woodpecker was once a regular summer resident here, but has decreased greatly in numbers and has almost come to be considered as a migrant only,
and even then it will be fairly abundant in one season and absent the next.
. . His increasing rarity is the usual penalty paid by highly coloured birds
to thoughtless gunners, and he is a very easy mark when he is feeding flat
against a tree trunk.

It gets worse. Also in 1897, the New York Zoological's Society Annual Report reported the following regarding the population of the Red-headed Woodpecker in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Birds are not noticiably decreasing except in certain cases. Total decrease, perhaps one-tenth. Becoming extinct: red-headed woodpecker, bluebird, robin and Baltimore oriole. (source)


Thankfully, the state and Federal government created laws to protect the Red-headed Woodpecker as well as a vast number of other birds. By 1900, the penalty for killing a Red-headed Woodpecker in Alabama- $10 (with inflation, the penalty would have equalled $246.14 in 2007 dollars). It is interesting to note that there was also a $50 fine ($1,230 in 2007 dollars) for taking or destroying nests and eggs. Egg poaching was a significant conservation issue during the 1800's and early 1900's. (source) Inflation calculator compliments of http://www.westegg.com/inflation/

Finally, I believe I discovered why the Red-headed Woodpecker in the above photo appears to be missing part of his head. It is my belief that he recently visited California. The Takelma Native American tribe of Northern California used Red-headed Woodpecker scalps as adornments on their clothing and baskets. Then again, after further consideration, the report of the Takelma Indians was published in 1910. Surely, we as mankind have traveled further down the conservation path since then?

Oh well, I'll have to quit romanicizing it- my poor bird probably just has mites. Or is molting. Or perhaps he is simply pining for some cherries. . .

4 comments:

The Giraffe Head Tree said...

Hey Daniel! I've not seen this particular red-headed woodpecker, but will watch for him. He's not my Sentinel, who perches and perhaps nests atop the tree closest to our deck. Last year I spotted a male cardinal with similar problems atop his head, and if memory serves it was a feather fungus of some sort that normally healed itself after a season. But that poor cardinal looked pretty sad for a time. I'll see if I can dig up my photos of the guy. This is fascinating history about the red-headed woodpecker. We knew the RHW is on the threatened list, and now the history is revealed. Great research - thank you SO much for all that you do! Debi @ GHT

Mary said...

What a beautiful bird, even with part of his scalp gone. I have never seen a Red-Headed Woodpecker, so I love seeing photos of it! The information in your post was interesting, too. Hopefully mankind learns from some of its mistakes with nature....though not often enough. As a child my "job" was to sit each day and shoot the birds in our cherry trees during fruit season. When I killed a female cardinal...which I had never seen before....I was horrified....also a bit scared because it is our state bird and illegal to shoot! Now I spend mega-bucks feeding cardinals and all the other birds that come to my feeders. I hope in some small way, I make up for that childhood error. I have had cardnals here that are bald and scroungy looking. I think it was mites or something like that.

Dale said...

That bird is very unique. It's kind of different from the others but it really looks good.

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Anonymous said...

We have at least one living on our property. I heard knocking and was not sure and he continues to knock, peck and visit. He has a beautiful red head. I will photo as he is comfortable. We are discouraging his pecking away the eaves but hope he or she find a nest and stays in comfort.
Lincoln, CA
The meaning of this animal is very fitting in our lives right now.calatica