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Nature Notes

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Conrad Station Savanna, once filled with the of screeching New York Central Railroad cars and the snorts of Jennie M. Conrad’s Spotted Poland-China hogs, is noisy again with the sound of the Red-headed Woodpeckers drumming on the oaks within the old ghost town.

This month's Nature Notes was written by Alyssa Nyberg, Nursery Manager at Kankakee Sands.

Calls and drumming are used by the Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) to communicate with one another in the open savanna. They use a (read this next part aloud) wheezy, loud queeah or queerp to communicate to other woodpeckers who are far away and a gentle dry rattle krrrrrr to communicate to buddies who are close by. Drumming is a seasonal activity and is used specifically to attract a mate. Typically they rap on a hollow tree with their beaks. The sound reverberates in the hollow wood and travels over long distances.

The Red-headed Woodpecker is quite a handsome bird. It has an unmistakable brilliant red head, black back and wings, with a white belly and rump. Adult males and females look alike. Juveniles have similar body markings but lack the red head. Instead they have a brown streaked head. Novice and veteran birdwatchers can quickly recognize this medium sized (9.25 inches long), stocky, boldly colored bird.

Red-headed Woodpeckers, like all woodpeckers, have bodies well-adapted to a life of foraging, clinging to and hammering on trees. You can imagine the headache you might have after a day of hammering on a tree with your beak! To absorb the shock of hammering, the woodpeckers’ brain case is larger than those of other birds and their frontal bones are more folded to act as shock absorbers. Woodpecker tongues are barbed, sticky and extremely long compared to the tongues of other birds. This sticky, prickly, long tongue allows the woodpecker to reach deep into holes and fish out insects, lessening the amount of drilling they need to do with their beaks. Its tail is used for support as it moves up and down the tree trunk. The tail feathers are stiff and attached with large muscles that add strength and agility. Even their feet differ from those of terrestrial birds who have three toes facing forward and one toe facing backwards. Woodpeckers have two toes forward and two facing backwards. As the woodpecker climbs up the tree, one back toe rotates to the side for added leverage.

Both the male and female work to create a cavity nest lined with bits of wood inside the hollow of a tree. Nests are constructed anywhere from 8 to 80 feet up in the tree. Females lay four to five, one-inch long white eggs. Both parents share the incubation duties. Eggs hatch in 12-13 days, and young hatchlings fledge (leave the nest) in a month’s time. They often have two broods per season.

The Red-headed Woodpecker’s diet consists of insects, berries, small invertebrates, seeds, nuts, bird eggs and mice. Using their beaks and long tongues the woodpeckers excavate insects from the bark. They also capture insects in the air during short flights; it darts off the tree, captures the insect and promptly returns to the tree. Interestingly, the Red-headed Woodpecker caches insects and seeds, to be eaten at a later time. The food is stored and hidden in the cracks of wood and bark. Gruesomely, grasshoppers are wedged alive into tight crevices from which they cannot escape.

Unfortunately, Red-headed Woodpeckers are declining at a rate of four percent annually in the Midwest. Over a period of just twenty years, a population of 100 individuals would be reduced to 46. That is of course alarming and discouraging, but luckily the Red-headed Woodpeckers are thriving at Conrad Station Savanna. Their preferred habitat is burned, deciduous woodlands of oak or beech with large open areas between the trees. This describes Conrad perfectly! Nature Conservancy staff regularly conduct prescribed burns at Conrad in order to thin the woodlands for our target species. It is not certain why the woodpeckers prefer the burned areas, but it is possibly due to the insect quantity and diversity in the damaged and decaying trees.

The Red-headed Woodpeckers are year-round residents at Conrad. A walk along the 1.5-mile mowed trail through the preserve any time of year will provide you the pleasure of seeing and hearing them, just as the residents of Conrad would have seen and heard over a century ago.

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