Many of the woodpeckers have red in their names and red in their plumage, but in both respects, the red-headed woodpecker is the reddest of them all.

Red-headed woodpeckers have been getting a lot of attention locally; a pair fledged young in a tree along the Red River Greenway. This is not unprecedented, but the pair chose a very public place, and so many bird lovers and casual observers have seen the pair and its young.

Red-headed woodpeckers have become regular nesters here; I’ve known of nesting pairs in each of the last several seasons. Likely, I overlooked them in earlier years.

Or maybe not.

The red-headed woodpecker is not a shy bird, and it is perhaps the most appropriately named and easily recognized of North American birds. The head is a vivid red, a field mark that is hard to overlook. But that’s not the only clue the woodpecker offers. It shows a large patch of white on the back and in the wings, giving it a two-toned appearance as it flies away.

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Seeing a red-headed woodpecker is a memorable experience nevertheless, because the species is not common. What’s more, it sometimes shows up in unexpected places. I once encountered a pair while I was hiking down a wooded draw in the North Dakota Badlands, a place farther west than I expected to find the woodpecker, and a good deal drier and less wooded than habitats that I associated with woodpeckers. I’ve also seen them in shelterbelts and occasionally on telephone poles and fence posts quite a distance from any tree at all.

But there they were – easy to recognize and hard to overlook.

The historic breeding range of the red-headed woodpecker does include the Badlands, I later found by consulting checklists and other literature about birds on the Great Plains. Dry and rugged as they are, the Badlands do have an established old-growth forest along the Little Missouri River, especially cottonwoods.

Woodpeckers like dead trees. They turn their trunks into housing units by excavating nesting sites. An added bonus is access to a cafeteria of wood-boring insects, ideal food for fledgling woodpeckers.

Robert E. Stewart described the red-headed woodpecker as “characteristic of open woodlands or forest margins … found in the vicinity of upland and bottomland forests, tree claims and mature shelterbelts, and in partially wooded residential areas of suburbs, towns and farmsteads. Within natural stands of trees an affinity is shown for tracts that contain numerous dead trees. Red-headed woodpeckers frequently range out from these woodland types into adjoining areas of open habitat, particularly along roadsides with telephone poles.”

Historically, this ruled out much of North Dakota, of course, because forests occurred only in moist areas, and most of the state was a great open steppe before the age of shelterbelts. Probably, the woodpecker is more numerous now than it was in those olden days – which extended into the 1950s across much of the state – and might be returning as more shelterbelts are removed to allow farming of larger tracts of land.

The red-headed woodpecker likely will remain one of those species that is widespread but not common, present in suitable habitats and absent elsewhere.

The Red River Greenway offers suitable habitat right here in River City, but I’m not going to tell you exactly where this pair has nested. Bird finding is more rewarding if there’s at least a little effort – and anticipation – involved.

Red-headed woodpeckers occur as far north and west as the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and the Yellowstone River Valley of Montana. In northern areas, such as our own, these birds are migrants. Local red-headed woodpeckers will move farther south and east as the season advances.

Woodpecker watching is good sport in winter, though. Several varieties are resident, including downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers, in order of size. Each of these show off a little bit of red. Red-bellied woodpeckers are occasional, and becoming more frequent here, as well.

Audubon meeting set

The local Audubon Society chapter is beginning its regular meetings on Thursday, Sept. 12. That’s this week. The meeting includes a book sale; buyer names the price and all proceeds go to the club. I confess some of the books are duplicates from my collection. They were exposed by the Big Sort that Suezette and I have undertaken.

The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the Boardwalk Bar and Grill in East Grand Forks. Show up at 6.30 p.m. for a look around the Greenway. Maybe there’ll be a woodpecker sighting. Stay after for talk about birds.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at