Red-headed Woodpecker

Today was an exciting day of banding songbirds at Carpenter Nature Center. When I arrived, everyone was abuzz because a red-headed woodpecker had been spotted on the property and hopes were high of getting it into nets to band it.

We did get the woodpecker in the nets and we got more than we bargained for. This bird came with a mystery to puzzle over. First, just take a minute to enjoy such a pleasing combination of red, white and black. I remember when I was kid looking through my National Geographic Field Guide and seeing pictures and wondering how cool it must be to see a bird with a bright red head. Hm, this bird is actually named for what it looks like, unlike many other birds such as the red-bellied woodpecker. The early North American ornithologists must have been a little drunk or giddy on the day they voted on this name.

When the bird was actually in hand, you could see something was a bit off with the head. It had a bald patch. Could this be from mites? Could this be molting gone awry? What the heck was up with this bird?

This bird had been scalped! The whole top layer of skin was gone--even the feather follicles. No feathers have grown in this spot since the bird got the injury. Many red-headed woodpeckers get hit by cars but those types of injures are more internal. Jim Fitzpatrick, the head bander said from the look of the injury, this happened long ago, perhaps in the bird's first year. According to the Pyle book, wing measurements and plumage patterns put this bird at over four years of age.

This bird is a classic example of how tough and strong they are in the wild. We came up with several speculations as to what happened to this woodpecker. It could have been scalped by a raccoon trying to raid the nest when it was young. Maybe the injury is the result of a house sparrow trying to take over a nest cavity the red-head was in. House sparrows attack the back of the head of birds by piercing it with their large bill. A red-headed woodpecker is bigger than a bluebird, so that seems unlikely. Perhaps this woodpecker escaped being a meal of an accipiter like a sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk? Who knows, but one thing is for sure, it has been surviving for years with this bald patch.

Red-headed woodpeckers are migratory, so this bird must go down to warmer southern states in winter. With a bald patch like that, this red-head would not be able to survive in the sub zero temperatures of a Minnesota winter. Birds are so much more resilient than we often give them credit for. Who knows what horrible attack or injury this bird survived years ago, but here it is today, thriving. Birds are more than capable of surviving what we might call a traumatic incident than some people give them credit for--which you would need to be in order to survive in the wild. This gives me hope for their future conservation.

Did you notice the feathers under the red? They're gray--only the tips are red. Funny, I always thought the red went all the way down the shaft on those head feathers. You can see it better in the close up of the injury. Also, note the hairy or shaggy appearance of the head and back feathers--fascinating feather texture. The primary wing feathers and tail feathers are quite stiff and such a contrast to the head, neck and back feathers. I know the tail is stiff to help prop the woodpecker upright on the sides of trees, but I wonder what purpose the shaggy feathers serve?

This is one tough woodpecker. The red-head was handled for an especially short time--for the good of the bird and also because it started to peck holes in one of the bander's hands. Yes, that is blood on the back of her hand. Oh, and note that really cool black band bordering the red head--what a cool looking bird!

Remember, songbird banding is held every Friday morning at Carpenter Nature Center and is free and open to the public. Banding generally takes place between the hours of 9am - 12pm.