Will The Real Red Head Please Stand Up

December 22, 2015  •  6 Comments

Many birds have been named according to their color patterns.  You have Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Black-throated, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Red-headed, and Red-bellied to name a few.  Most of the time they accurately describe the bird but sometimes the names are confusing and misguiding.  In this blog post I would like to talk about woodpeckers with the color red on their head. 

The following photo of a male Red-bellied Woodpecker sure is confusing.  What red belly?  Actually, they do have a small area of red on their belly that is difficult to see in normal viewing directions.  Many people refer to them as Red-Headed Woodpecker, but, of course, they are not.

Red-bellied WoodpeckerRed-bellied WoodpeckerMale


The following red headed woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, has an often mispronounced name.  Merriam-Webster lists the pronunciation like this: pī-lē-ˌā-təd.  The Pileated is the largest of all our woodpeckers and prefer a large, undisturbed, plot of woods for breeding.  Their swooping flight and loud, boisterous call will stop you in your tracks.

Pileated WoodpeckerPileated Woodpecker


The Northern Flicker has a red crescent on the nape of the neck.  The flicker in the photo below is a female. 

Northern FlilckerNorthern FlilckerFemale


The Downey Woodpecker (left) and the longer, thicker billed Hairy Woodpecker (right) both have red coloring on their heads.  Once again, the coloring is gender specific to the male.

Downey WoodpeckerDowney WoodpeckerMale Hairy WoodpeckerHairy WoodpeckerMale

Now it's time to get to the real red head of the forest.  The Red-headed Woodpecker has an entirely crimson head, a snow-white body, and half white, half inky black wings.  When flying, it has been referred to as a "Flying Checkerboard".

The Red-headed Woodpecker likes open, deciduous woodlands, especially oak forests. In an interesting note, the Red-headed Woodpecker is one of only four North American woodpeckers known to store food, and it is the only one known to cover the stored food with wood or bark.  Also, it hides insects and seeds in cracks in wood and under bark.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker


The day I photographed this Red-headed Woodpecker was sunny but hovering around 30 degrees and forecasters called for zero wind chill temperatures.  I could hear its call as it flew from tree to tree mostly staying high in the branches.  Then I lost sight of it.  Since I didn't get a photo yet, I decided to wait for its return.  Fifteen minutes went by, then 30, then 45 and I still couldn't hear or see it.  My fingers and ears were frozen because I was under dressed for a lengthy photo shoot.  Finally, I gave up and walked back to my vehicle parked about 50 yards away.

Of course, my bird was perched in a tree right above my vehicle.  As I approached, it gave its distinct, territorial call and flew into higher branches.  Suddenly, I wasn't cold anymore and I was able to capture more images of this gorgeous bird.  As I told this story to my friend, Tom Dorsey, he replied, "It's funny how you don't feel the cold once there is something in the viewfinder".  How true.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker


By the way, with this species of woodpecker, the male and female look alike so I have no idea if this is a male or female bird.  After patiently waiting, it flew down to an opening in a tree about five feet off the ground and picked and pecked through the frozen water held inside.

Red-headed Woodpeckers eat insects, fruits, and seeds.  About one-third of their diet is animal material, mostly insects.  The other two-thirds is plant material.  Surprisingly, they are also one of our most skillful flycatchers.  In the winter, they spend the warmer days searching for insects but on colder days, they eat acorns, beech nuts, and pecans or whatever they have cached on tree bark.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker


Below is a video of the Red-headed Woodpecker pecking the ice in the hole of a tree.  I shot this with a Canon 7D MK II and Canon 600mm II lens.  The length of the barrel made it difficult to hold steady in the strong wind so, sorry for the camera shake during the video.  One thing I would like you to notice in this video is how the Red-headed Woodpecker uses its tail for support as it pecks and probes the tree.

Red-headed Woodpecker


One nice feature of a lens with a long focal length is if you are far enough away from the subject, even birds high in the trees can appear lower.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker


As the sun was setting in the west and light began to disappear, my Red-headed Woodpecker found a perch high in a tree and began to preen its feathers.  After 15 minutes, I felt it was settling down for the evening so, with a deep appreciation of the time I got to spend in its world, I bid farewell.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker


I hope you enjoyed this brief comparison of woodpeckers with red on their head.  Hopefully, I will capture more interesting photos of the Red-headed Woodpecker throughout the winter and if I'm lucky, I'll find its nest tree in the spring.

Thanks for looking,



Willard Hill(non-registered)
Awesome photos, Dan.
Marianne Rockhill(non-registered)
the pictures of the bird are fantastic. I love the video of the woodpecker. you ae so talented.
Linda S.(non-registered)
I always love your photos and your choice of birds and other wildlife. Have a Very Merry Christmas!
Janie Conrad(non-registered)
Wonderful blog post on woodpeckers. It helped me identify the little guy and gal that has been in the trees outside my back window. My indoor Cockatiel, Spike, calls to them when he spots them in the trees. Your photography is beautiful, and the details about the different woodpeckers is very informative and interesting. Thank you so much!
Mary Sue(non-registered)
Well presented and very informative. Love to look at nature pictures. Great job.
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