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A striking and unusual bird makes an appearance on Cape Cod

Red-headed Woodpecker
Susan Finnegan

A striking and unusual species has come a knocking on Cape Cod this month, a bird we rarely see. Adults of this mystery species have been seen in Provincetown last month and Falmouth last week. Another has seemingly settled in for the summer over at Nickerson State Park in Brewster. When I say the name, I guarantee that a lot of you will say “Come on, I see those all the time!” But I’m, in fact, talking about the rarest woodpecker in the region, the Red-headed Woodpecker. If you are confused, then you are likely thinking of the fairly common Red-bellied Woodpecker, which also has a red head, and not much of a red belly, if we’re being honest. So it’s ok, I’m not mad at you – my mom used to confuse them, too. You’re just another victim of terribly named birds.

The Red-headed Woodpecker has been described as the handsomest of the wood-pecking group, and I have to agree. It’s colors are rich, high contrast, and arrayed in big blocks of color – more of a Mondrian than a Monet. The glossy blue-black upperparts are bisected by a broad band of white across the folded wings. With the head, this imparts a sharp, tricolored aesthetic. The entire head is of course deep red – this includes the face and throat, unlike it’s oft-confused Red-bellied cousin, which is only red on the back of the head, from beak to nape.

I’ve been birding a long time - I started young, so more than 40 years. In that time I’ve seen less than ten Red-headed Woodpeckers, though they are supposed to be one of the common woodpeckers of the Eastern U.S. They have an odd range that goes as far north as southern Canada without really being in New England. They’re more common in the south, but I didn’t really see them there either.

Back in the 19th century they were considered pests, and were frequently shot for damaging fruit orchards and even telephone poles – according to Audubon himself, over 100 were shot on a single cherry tree in one day. But the days of that sort of abundance are long gone for this species. In modern times, in addition to habitat loss, they have apparently suffered at the hands, or beaks, of more aggressive cavity nesting species, especially the invasive European Starling, but also the aforementioned Red-bellied Woodpecker – I’ve seen first-hand what a vicious nest competitor they can be. This difference in assertiveness probably explains why Red-bellied Woodpeckers have hugely expanded their range in recent decades while the Red-headed Woodpecker is uncommon and declining.

Apparently, and anomalously, there were a couple of pairs of Red-headed Woodpeckers on the Vineyard from the 70s through the 90s, and a pair successfully bred in a suburban neighborhood in Plymouth a few years ago. But typical records around here have been young birds seen fleetingly in fall or spring migration, not adults in breeding season, making these recent sightings all the more remarkable. The combination of increased forest cover compared with 100 years ago, and a recent surfeit of dead trees, known as snags in forestry and wildlife management circles, could mean more sightings of this looker of a woodpecker. All those dead oaks killed by the years of simultaneous drought and caterpillar defoliation look awful to us, but to a woodpecker it looks like an opportunity.

So, as long as it’s not a safety issue, think twice before you have that dead or dying yard tree cut down. You never know when you might “snag” yourself a rare woodpecker.