Status: Common regular spring and fall migrant east and central, fairly common west. Common regular breeder east and central, uncommon west. Uncommon regular winter visitor extreme southeast, rare casual elsewhere.
Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM6290, 5 Jun 1981 Gage Co.
Taxonomy: No subspecies are currently recognized (Pyle 1997). Although no subspecies are currently recognized, eastern Nebraska birds were listed as M. e. erythrocephalus and those in the central and west M. e. caurinus by Rapp et al (1958) and AOU (1957). Western birds have a slight reddish or yellowish tinge to the underparts, but the difference is minor (Pyle 1997).
Spring: Apr 12, 13, 15 <<<>>> summer (east), Apr 21, 24, 24 <<<>>> summer (west, north)
Available data suggest arrival is about a week later in the north and west compared to the east, but this apparent pattern may be influenced by the species’ erratic migration and the relatively few observers in western Nebraska. Nevertheless, there are only eight reports in the west and north earlier than the above dates: 27 Mar 2019 seven at Norden Bridge, Brown Co, 30 Mar 2019 Valentine, Cherry Co, 7 Apr 1954 Boyd Co, 11 Apr 1989 Dawes Co, 14 Apr 2016 Cherry Co, 16 Apr 2019 Brown Co, and 17 Apr 1995 Sioux Co.
In the southeast arrival dates are difficult to determine due to the presence of wintering birds; High Counts suggest peak movement is in mid-May.
- High counts: 142 in Sarpy Co 11 May 1996, 91 of which were at Fontenelle Forest.
Summer: This species’ breeding distribution and abundance appears to have changed little since settlement by European Americans. Bruner et al (1904) considered it “common throughout the whole state” and “increasing”. BBS data show some of the highest relative abundances throughout the species entire breeding range are achieved in Nebraska (Sauer et al 2001). However, there is a noticeable decline in density from east to west. In the west, in addition to the usual summering habitat of mostly riparian and upland deciduous forest habitats as in the east and central, there are notable influxes into recently-burned ponderosa pine areas. Rosche (1982) pointed out that large numbers occurred in the Dead Horse Creek drainage near Chadron SP, Dawes Co after the 1973 fire, and 10 were found in the Pants Butte burn area in Sioux Co 27 May 2009 after the 2006 Sowbelly Canyon fire. Tallman et al (2002) cited Peterson (1993) regarding various woodpeckers’ occupation of pine forest after fires when burns were available; Red-headed Woodpeckers, like the congeneric Lewis’s Woodpeckers, generally occupied burn areas several years after the burn, and usually only occupied very large burns.
Red-headed Woodpecker is a species of conservation concern and has declined markedly in portions of its range, especially the Ohio River drainage (Rosenberg et al 2016). BBS data show a small annual decline of -1.31 (95% C.I. -2.06, -0.50) in Nebraska during the years 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017). Jorgensen (2012) noted the species had declined in the Rainwater Basin as farmsteads and hedgerows were removed and converted to row-crops. Mollhoff (2016) also noted that the species may have declined in some areas due to expansion of row-crops.
- Breeding Phenology:
Eggs: 30 May-28 Jun
Fledglings: 6 Jul-3 Oct
Brown-headed juveniles: 30 Jul-29 Oct
Fall: summer <<<>>> Sep 30, Oct 2, 2 (north), summer <<<>> >Oct 13, 14, 18 (west), summer <<<>>> Oct 18, 20, 21 (Rosche 1994) (south)
Nebraska data suggest markedly earlier fall departure dates in the north, where there are only these later dates: 9 Oct 1999 in Blaine and Thomas Cos, 16 Oct 1966 Custer Co, 18 Oct 2015 Greeley Co, 25 Oct 2018 Custer Co, 29 Oct 2018 Custer Co, and 31 Oct 1981 Thomas Co. Movement in the west begins in Aug, and probably peaks in late Aug; 28 were at Lake McConaughy, Keith Co 24 Aug 2007. Most depart the south and west by late Sep, although there are later reports 27 Oct 1990 Buffalo Co, 28 Oct 2005 Scotts Bluff Co, 1 Nov 2005 Keith Co, 25 Nov 1979 Hall Co, 28 Nov 1991 Phelps Co, and 15 Dec 1990 Lincoln Co. In the northeast, there are several records of lingering birds, mostly juveniles, including juveniles in Boyd and Knox Cos 14 Nov 2011 and a single in Boone Co 30 Nov 2018. In the southeast, departure dates are difficult to determine due to the presence of wintering birds, although peak counts are in Sep.
- High counts: 100+ at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 4 Sep 2004, 57 at Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co 18 Aug 2017, 35 at Neale Woods, Douglas Co 2 Oct 2013, 33 at Chadron SP, Dawes Co 2 Sep 2018, and 32 at Indian Cave SP, Nemaha and Richardson Cos 13 Sep 2003.
Winter: Wintering occurs most years in the extreme southeast, with stragglers, usually immatures, north to Cedar and Dixon Cos, and is strongly linked to availability of acorns (Bent 1939, Parker 1982) and possibly fruits such as Russian olive, which is used by lingering individuals, usually immatures, in central Nebraska (Rosche 1994).
A study by Parker (1982) of competition among bark-foragers in Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co showed that as the fall progressed, Red-headed Woodpeckers devoted increasingly more time to caching acorns on firmly-defended wintering territories and used this stored food reserve during the insect-free winter.
CBC data indicate that even by Dec, very few birds remain north and west of Lincoln and Omaha. The westernmost CBC reports are of single birds at Lake McConaughy 2 Jan 2010 and at North Platte, Lincoln Co 1990-91. High CBC counts are 160 at Omaha 15 Dec 2014 and 143 there 16 Dec 1995.
In some years, conceivably those when the availability of acorns is limited, most Red-headed Woodpeckers leave the state; in 2015-2016 none were found at Indian Cave SP 15 Feb where usually they winter in good numbers, only two were found on the Omaha CBC 22 Dec and one on the Lincoln CBC 19 Dec, and none anywhere in the state 27 Dec-12 Feb.
Away from the southeast, midwinter reports (Jan-20 Feb) are few, especially north and west of a line from Knox Co through Lincoln Co: an adult was in Boyd Co 2 Jan 2009, Lake McConaughy CBC 2 Jan 2010, Valentine, Cherry Co 4 Jan 2014, four were in northeastern Cherry 5 Jan 2019, one was in Keya Paha Co 7 Jan 2019, Scotts Bluff Co 19 Jan 1952, an immature was in Keya Paha Co 15 Feb 2016, and a single was in Keya Paha Co 20 Feb 2017. The five reports from the area where Brown, Keya Paha, and Cherry Cos meet, along with five more early spring records (above), suggest occasional wintering there.
BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
Photograph (top) of a Red-headed Woodpecker at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 26 July 2010 by Phil Swanson.
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