Backyard Birdwatching: Immature Red-headed Woodpecker


In late December, 2013 I was fortunate to observe an immature Red-headed Woodpecker  (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) at my suet feeder.  I got the first shot through a window (click here to view), but two days later I was also able to watch and photograph it outside as it foraged in a big maple tree in my side yard.

©Julie L. Brown Photography

foraging near roost hole (click on image for a larger view)


The Red-headed Woodpecker displays different feeding behaviors than other woodpeckers: “Perhaps the most omnivorous of woodpeckers. Diet includes wide variety of insects, also spiders, earthworms, nuts, seeds, berries, wild and cultivated fruit, rarely small rodents. Sometimes eats eggs and nestlings of other birds. Also sometimes eats bark….Flies out from a perch to catch insects in the air or on ground; climbs tree trunks and major limbs; clambers in outer branches; hops on ground. Gathers acorns, beechnuts, and other nuts in fall, storing them in holes and crevices, then feeding on them during winter.”


This tree is in decline, so it must have enough dead wood to harbor the insect food that woodpeckers seek out. There are also a number of roost holes that have been made by other woodpeckers that provide shelter as well.

©Julie L. Brown Photography

foraging near roost hole (click on image for a larger view)

The woodpecker stuck around through the worst of the weather that came through on January 5th-11 inches of snow, low temperatures of -15 degrees, and wind chills down to -40 degrees. He or she (males and females are sexually monomorphic-they look alike) continued to feed on the suet, despite the attempts at harassment by starlings.

Red-headed Woodpecker ©Julie L. Brown 2014

looking up at starling (click on image for larger view)

Starlings usually chase off most other birds at the feeder, but the Red-headed Woodpecker is likely to stand its ground. It is more aggressive than other woodpeckers that eat suet-the Red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus) or the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), despite being smaller (19-23 cm vs 24 cm vs 28-31 cm). “A highly territorial species, the red-headed woodpecker can be aggressive in defending its nesting area and food storage sites. It also shows territorial behaviour against other species.”

To date, the last time I photographed this bird was through the window on January 9, 2014.

Red-headed Woodpecker ©Julie L. Brown 2014

leaving feeder with food in bill

I was starting to worry that it was gone, but yesterday as I began to write this post, it appeared at the suet feeder. I really hope that it stays through the winter because I want to see it develop into an adult.

New Yard Bird: Immature Red-headed Woodpecker


Mother Nature gave me a holiday present the other day-a new yard bird! Three days ago I spotted a strange bird on the suet feeder. My first impression was that it was a woodpecker, but it appeared to be mostly brown and looked rather short and plump compared to other woodpeckers that come to my feeders: Red-bellied, Downey, Northern Flicker, and Pileated.  I looked through my field guides and made a preliminary guess based on the brown head as to what species it might be.  Fortunately it made another appearance yesterday afternoon. I was able to squeeze off only one frame before it flew off. This image was hand-held and shot through a window. I made more today, but the light was low and the image quality was poor.

at suet feeder (click on image for a larger view)

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker at suet feeder (click on image for a larger view)

This was an exciting discovery because a Red-headed Woodpecker is not a bird that I would expect to see in a suburban yard. Although there are many trees in the neighborhood, it is surrounded by heavy commercial development with no large stands of mature forest nearby. The conservation status is NT (near threatened) due to declining populations across North America over the last 60 years. “Though the species was common in towns and cities a century ago, it began declining in urban areas as people started felling dead trees and trimming branches.

The habitat of the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is normally “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of dead or dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings, beaver swamps, orchards, parks, farmland, grasslands with scattered trees, forest edges, and roadsides. During the start of the breeding season they move from forest interiors to forest edges or disturbed areas. Wherever they breed, dead (or partially dead) trees for nest cavities are an important part of their habitat. In the northern part of their winter range, they live in mature stands of forest, especially oak, oak-hickory, maple, ash, and beech. In the southern part, they live in pine and pine-oak. They are somewhat nomadic; in a given location they can be common one year and absent the next.

Immature Red-headed Woodpeckers have brown heads, mottled backs, and streaked breasts. Adults are unmistakeable with their solid color pattern-striking red head, white breast, black back, and white patch on the wings. I have seen them in southern Indiana at Yellow Wood State Forest, but have yet to get a decent photograph. Here is the best I’ve done so far:

adult climbing tree at yellow wood state forest, southern Indiana

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker climbing tree at Yellow Wood State Forest,
in southern Indiana between Columbus and Nashville (click on image for a larger view)

I am hoping to get more chances to shoot this species at my feeder-both immatures and adults.

Backyard Birds part 2: Providing Food

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The American Goldfinch is strictly a seed-eater. Favorite foods include nyjer and black oil sunflower. For years I have put out finch feeders filled with nyjer seed. This past August I was introduced to the sock feeders in the images below by the owner of the Mr. Canary Company. She found me through my photoblog and asked if I would photograph goldfinches on the sock feeders. It took about a week or so for the birds to find the feeders. I made the requested images by the end of August. The finches continued to visit the feeders the rest of the summer and well into autumn.


Adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird at sugar water feeder. Hummingbirds supplement their diet with nectar and readily visit sugar water feeders for carbohydrates. Most people do not realize that they also eat insects.rubythroathummerfemaleatfeeder2012Lowres

Sugar water feeder with perch. The recipe for this simple syrup is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Although hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, please do not add red food coloring to your sugar water. Be sure to clean the feeder and add fresh solution every couple of days to avoid the growth of mold.

hummerfeederbackyard-2There are a number of common birds that have adapted well to living in human-impacted environments. Any urban or suburban habitat may be attractive to wild birds if it contains these three major features: food, water, and shelter. In this post, I will discuss a few of the species that visit the feeders on my property.

Adult Blue Jay tossing a peanut. Peanuts also attract chickadees nuthatches and woodpeckers.


Adult male Northern Cardinal in winter with a block of mixed seeds, nuts, and fruits. Cardinals like sunflower and safflower seeds. Northern Cardinal with seed

Feeding birds in winter can be very beneficial when normal food sources are covered by snow and ice.

Woodpeckers love suet. Downey Woodpecker eating suet  Notice that the bird is resting its tail on the prop for leverage as he feeds. This is especially helpful to larger birds such as Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Pileated Woodpeckers.

Nuthatch striking a pose at the suet feeder. Nuthatch at suet feeder

Adult male Pileated Woodpecker at suet feeder. Adult male Pileated Woodpecker on feeder pole

This bird is very skittish. Close-up photos are hard to get. I shot this image from inside my house through a very clean window.

The links below will take you to more of my images of birds on feeders.

Two doves on bird feeder

Northern Flicker on suet feeder

Red-bellied Woodpecker on suet feeder


Common Birds of Winter, part 2


More birds in the snow. All images shot at Eagle Creek Park, Indianapolis. February 2011

Tufted Titmouse

a year-round resident in Indiana; often seen at seed and suet feeders, or foraging on the ground

White-throated Sparrow

winters in Indiana, often seen in mixed flocks; will migrate north to Canada in spring to breeding grounds

Red-bellied Woodpecker, female

year-round resident of Indiana; often seen at suet and nut feeders; will often cache nuts in tree bark crevices


year-round resident of Indiana; often visits feeders where it noisily dominates other birds

Female House Sparrow

year-round resident; seen at feeders in groups and mixed flocks

Red-breasted Nuthatch

winters in Indiana; this is probably a male due to the extensive orange on the breast

Common Birds of Winter, part 1

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These photos were shot in February 2011, when we had a lot of snow on the ground.

American Tree Sparrow
(Click on the photo for a larger version)
Eagle Creek Park/Indianapolis, Indiana

A winter bird for Indiana. Tree Sparrows will head north in the spring to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Female Northern Cardinal
(Click on the photo for a larger version)
Eagle Creek Park/Indianapolis, Indiana

Male Northern Cardinal
(Click on the photo for a larger version)
Eagle Creek Park/Indianapolis, Indiana

Northern Cardinals are year-round residents in Indiana

Dark-eyed Junco, slate-colored female
(Click on the photo for a larger version)

Eagle Creek Park/Indianapolis, Indiana

Another winter resident in Indiana. Dark-eyed Juncos will also migrate north to Canada in the spring.


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