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For Love of Nature: Red-headed woodpeckers on rise
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For Love of Nature: Red-headed woodpeckers on rise

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Two weeks ago I looked out at our bird feeders and froze at the sight of a red-headed woodpecker.

Michael had never seen a red-headed woodpecker on his property in 30 years, and we finally had one!

Several friends also have reported seeing them for the first time at their feeders.

More frequent sightings indicate this bird is making a comeback in our area, matching a national trend. In 2018, the red-headed woodpecker was downlisted from near threatened to least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

These gorgeous birds have a solid red head, black shoulders and upper wings and a white patch across their lower backs that corresponds to white on their lower wings. That broad swath of white is unmistakable when the bird flies.

Like most woodpeckers, they thrive where dead trees or snags are left standing, and red-headeds often move in after a fire, according to The Sibley Guide To Bird Life & Behavior.

Growing up, we had red-headed woodpeckers on our farm, but we could only see them from afar with binoculars.

I spent a solid hour watching this bird at our feeder, and it has been back nearly every day since.

Though they eat mainly insects, they will eat seeds, and our visitor seems to love peanuts.

Woodpeckers are some of our most charismatic birds. We have seven species here, and they all forage for insects and larvae in trees or the ground.

They are also drummers. Woodpeckers find a nice hollow spot in a trunk or branch (or a rain gutter or stovepipe) and drum rapidly. Both males and females drum to attract mates or declare territory.

This season’s drumming is well under way.

As they forage for food, they peck more slowly and deliberately, listening for insects and probing deep into wood with their long tongues to dislodge a meal.

The largest of the woodpeckers is the pileated, with its distinctive red crest, white neck and black body. This bird is reminiscent of a pteradactyl, the ancient forerunner of birds from the dinosaur age.

With a 29-inch wingspan, it’s hard to miss as it swoops from tree to tree, often leaving a pile of chips beneath.

The American Birding Association has declared 2021 the Year of the Pileated Woodpecker. Pileateds can live up to 12 years.

Next in size is the northern flicker with its brownish back with black barring. These birds often forage in the ground, leaving a lawn full of small holes.

The red-bellied woodpecker doesn’t have the best name. Its orange-red cap is far more distinctive than its white belly with a pale red patch.

The hardest to distinguish are the downy and slightly larger hairy woodpeckers, both black and white birds. The males have a red patch on the back of their heads, while the females do not.

This year we have also seen lots of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which drill holes into the bark and sip on the sap and dine on insects trapped in the sap. They can do a lot of damage to small trees, but wire cages can discourage them.

Keep your eyes and ears open to note how many woodpeckers are around.

Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at


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