The Outdoor Journal by Kyle Carroll
Like a flashing light, the black and white feathers of the woodpecker in flight flickered against the green backdrop. My brother locked on to the woodpeckers flight path. As soon as the bird landed in a nearby tree, it disappeared behind the trunk, hard at work looking for insects. As a young hunter, he most likely knew that songbirds were off limits, but this one was just too tempting. He eased through the underbrush and when the scarlet head appeared on the opposite side of the tree he aimed and fired his light 20-gauge squirrel load at the Red Headed Woodpecker. The bird tumbled to earth. (At this point, I want to interrupt the story to say that if you shoot at something that you are not supposed to, you will hit it. It's some kind of law.)
Lacking taxidermy skills, but impressed with the spectacular read plumage on the bird, he scalped it and brought it home. I'm not sure whatever happened to the scalp but the Red Headed Woodpecker as a species has declined dramatically in the 40 plus years since my brother did his John James Audubon imitation and “collected” the beautiful woodland bird with his shotgun.
My brother was not alone in his admiration for the showy bird. The Red Headed Woodpecker was the “spark bird” (the bird that starts a person’s interest in birds) of legendary ornithologist Alexander Wilson in the 1700s, and the Cherokee Indians considered the bird a war symbol.
Red Headed Woodpeckers eat insects, fruits, and seeds. Overall, they eat about one-third animal material (mostly insects) and two-thirds plant material. Their insect diet includes beetles, cicadas, midges, honeybees, and grasshoppers. They are one of the most skillful flycatchers among the North American woodpeckers. They typically catch aerial insects by spotting them from a perch on a tree limb or fencepost and then flying out to grab them.
The bad news is, this species had declined 70% since 1960 making it a “near threatened” species. Red Headed Woodpeckers were common to abundant in the nineteenth century, probably because the continent had more mature forests with nut crops and dead trees. They were so common that orchard owners and farmers used to pay a bounty for them, and in 1840 Audubon reported that 100 were shot from a single cherry tree in one day.
You can learn more about this woodpecker and other birds at Cornell University’s, ALL ABOUT BIRDS page. If you have a smart phone, you can download MERLIN, an app that helps you identify birds in the field. It's easy to use and extremely helpful.