Melanerpes erythrocephalus

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 14, 14, 16 <<<>>> summer (west, north, northeast)

Earlier dates in the west, north, and northeast are 27 Mar 2019 (7) Norden Bridge, Brown Co, 27 Mar 2020 Dixon Co, 27 Mar 2021 Wayne Co, 30 Mar 2019 Valentine, Cherry Co, 6 Apr 2019 Boone Co, 7 Apr 1954 Boyd Co, 9 Apr 2017 Howard Co, 10 Apr 1986 Dodge Co, 11 Apr 1989 Dawes Co.

Although available data show little if any difference in spring arrival dates across the state, there are fewer such dates westward. In the southeast, arrival dates are difficult to determine due to the presence of wintering birds; High Counts suggest peak movement is occurs 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: 16 Jul-29 Oct

Fall: summer <<<>>> Oct 9, 9, 10 (west, north, northeast)

Later dates are 13 Oct 2017 Dawes Co, 16 Oct 1966 Custer Co, 18 Oct 2015 Greeley Co, 24 Oct 2014 Wayne Co, 24 Oct 2019 Dixon Co, 25 Oct 2018 Custer Co, 27 Oct 2008 Dakota Co, 27 Oct 2018 Howard Co, 28 Oct 2005 Scotts Bluff Co, 29 Oct 2018 Custer Co, and 31 Oct 1981 Thomas 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. 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.

  • High counts: 100+ at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 4 Sep 2004, 64 at East Ash Canyon, Dawes Co 25 Aug 2019, and 57 at Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co 18 Aug 2017.

WinterWintering occurs most years in the extreme southeast, with stragglers, usually immatures, north to Cedar and Dixon Cos and west to Lancaster Co, 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).

Elsewhere, CBC data indicate that 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.

Away from the southeast, there are about 40 reports Nov through mid-Mar, only one of these in the Panhandle, in Scotts Bluff Co 19 Jan 1952. Northwesterly reports are few: 2 Dec 2013 Antelope Co, 29 Dec 2018 Boone Co, 2 Jan 2009 adult in Boyd Co, 4 Jan 2014 Valentine, Cherry Co, 5 Jan 2019 (4) northeastern Cherry Co, 7 Jan 2019 Keya Paha Co, 15 Feb 2016 immature Keya Paha Co, and 20 Feb 2017 Keya Paha Co .

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.

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.


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.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed. Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Bent, A.C. 1939. Life histories of North American woodpeckers. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 174. Dover Publications Reprint 1964, New York, New York, USA.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Parker, J. 1982. Niche competition among members of a bark foraging guild in eastern Nebraska. Master’s thesis. University of Nebraska-Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Peterson, R.A. 1993. A birdwatcher’s guide to the Black Hills. PC Publishing, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Rosenberg, K.V., J.A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R.P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J.D. Alexander, C.J. Beardmore, P.J. Blancher, R.E. Bogart, G.S. Butcher, A.F. Camfield, A.Couturier, D.W. Demarest, W.E. Easton, J.J. Giocomo, R.H. Keller, A.E. Mini, A.O. Panjabi, D.N. Pashley, T.D. Rich, J.M. Ruth, H.Stabins, J. Stanton, T. Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines and J. Fallon. 2001. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analyses 1966-2000. Version 2001.2. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 3 Jun 2021