Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0654© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0700© Maria de Bruyn


Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0742© Maria de Bruyn res


Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.


Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.



Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8082© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8096© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8788© Maria de Bruyn resred-headed woodpecker IMG_1880© Maria de Bruyn


Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.


Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0574© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0576© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8625© Maria de Bruyn


As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.



Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9202© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8734© Maria de Bruyn res

When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8345© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_9104© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_1587© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8332© Maria de Bruyn res

As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0605© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0707© Maria de Bruyn


Resplendent remiges and rectrices – bird beauty from behind

The other day asMourning dove IMG_6565©Maria de Bruyn res I was photographing birds at my feeders, I was struck by the beauty of this bird’s feathers as they lay across its back. The muted colors are wonderful and the scalloped-edge pattern is marvelous. It made me take a look at other birds’ feathers as seen from behind and how they vary in position and shape. I hope you enjoy this short tour and have some fun identifying the birds shown – many are very easy for experienced birders but perhaps some are not for beginning birdwatchers. The answers will be added to the blog next week.

So, we are focusing here on flight feathers, namely the remiges and rectrices. The remiges – or wing feathers – help the bird get lift when flying and support the bird during flight. The rectrices – tail feathers – give the bird stability and provide control.

Red fox sparrow IMG_5745© Maria de Bruyn resHouse finch M de Bruyn resCardinal IMG_6227©Maria de Bruyn res

The outer “vane” (part of the feather above the shaft) is narrower than the inner vane, so the wing feathers are asymmetrical. The tail feathers, on the other hand, are symmetrical in shape and pattern. The “primary” wing feathers are narrower and can be rotated individually, while the secondary remiges are shorter and lie together, even when the bird is flying.

In some species, the wing feathers may reveal a spot of color on the bird’s back when they are not folded completely over one another.

Yellow-rumped warbler IMG_6461©Maria de BruynresHouse finch IMG_6255©Maria de Bruyn res

The feathers also serve other functions, such as keeping the bird warm and dry.

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_4221©Maria de BruynresMandarin duck IMG_1605©Maria de Bruyn resHoopoe IMG_4314©Maria de Bruyn res

In some species, the males develop especially resplendent rectrices in thRed-collared widowbird 390©Maria de Bruynreseir breeding plumage – a definite attempt to attract mates.

Interestingly, the total weight of a bird’s feathers is about 2-3 times more than the weight of its bones!

One final quiz question – which bird has the fewest overall feathers and which species has the most?

Next week: curious deer