Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus


Justification of Red List Category
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the threshold for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the threshold for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years of three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the threshold for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

Population justification
The population size has not been quantified, but is estimated to number >10,000 mature individuals.

Trend justification
This species is thought to have undergone a decrease in North America. Taken from long-term trends (Christmas Bird Count data for 1966-2017), data suggest an annual decline of 0.78% (0.26-1.48% annual decline). This would equate to a reduction of 11.51% (4.03-20.79%) over three generations (T. Meehan in litt. 2018).

Distribution and population

Melanerpes erythrocephalus is found in central and eastern USA, from Montana to the Atlantic coast and south to the Gulf of Mexico, and in extreme southern Canada (del Hoyo et al. 2002). The northern populations are migratory (Smith et al. 2000, del Hoyo et al. 2002), and historically its movements were influenced by nut crops from the now non-existent northern beech Fagus forests (Smith et al. 2000). It has experienced a steady decline of 2.5% annually since 1966 (J. Wells and K. Rosenberg in litt. 2003), with the most severe declines in Florida and the Great Lakes Plain (del Hoyo et al. 2002).


It inhabits mature lowland forest with dead trees for nesting, open areas for fly-catching and a relatively open understorey. There are low rates of nest survival, with nests with a great amount of vegetation around the nest cavity having the greatest survial rates (Berl et al. 2014). It is strongly aggressive, particularly when defending food storage sites, and is interspecifically territorial against the Red-bellied Woodpecker M. carolinus (Reller 1972). It is omnivorous, eating a high proportion of animal matter in spring, but seeds predominate in winter. It breeds from April to September.


Habitat degradation, as a result of the removal of dead trees and branches in urban areas (Pulich 1988), and loss of nesting habitat to firewood cutting, clear cutting, agricultural development and river channelling in rural areas (Ehrlich et al. 1992, Melcher 1998), appears to be responsible for population decline. Collisions with moving vehicles may be a contributing factor, but persecution as a pest by farmers and utility companies is currently minimal (Smith et al. 2000, del Hoyo et al. 2002). Mortality events due to collisions with communication towers have been reported (Longcore et al. 2013), but the overall threat from this is unknown. The introduced Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris may also be a threat as they act as competitors for nest sites with Red-headed Woodpeckers (J. Berl in litt. 2016). Additionally, predation by the Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus and warmer winter temperatures might play a role in the decline of the Red-headed Woodpecker (Koenig et al. 2017).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
It occurs in a number of protected areas, but no species-specific actions are known.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue to monitor population trends. Monitor rates of habitat loss and degradation. Evaluate migration ecology and habitat use during breeding and non-breeding seasons (J. Berl in litt. 2016). Use fire for its positive effects - prescribed burning and understorey thinning increased numbers in Arkansas by creating more open forest stands, improving foraging opportunities; however, whilst burning may create nest-snags, it also destroys existing nest-snags. Creation or maintenance of snags for nesting and roosting is of prime importance. Snags should be retained, in groups if possible. Dead branches should be retained on big trees in non-urban areas and only selectively pruned where hazardous in urban areas. Additionally, retain partially dead trees with some live vegetation as these appear to be important for nesting success (e.g. Berl et al. 2014). Selective thinning of live trees appears to have a positive effect (e.g. removal of 50% of oak trees for prairie restoration on a reserve in Ohio immediately attracted nesting birds); and removal of shade tolerant trees could be of particular benefit in restoring open understorey savanna or parkland (J. Berl in litt. 2016).


Text account compilers
Harding, M., Bird, J., Hermes, C., Benstead, P., Sharpe, C.J., Westrip, J.

Wells, J., Berl, J., Butcher, G., Rosenberg, K.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Melanerpes erythrocephalus. Downloaded from on 16/08/2022. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2022) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 16/08/2022.