- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant. Regular during the winter months; most frequently reported in southern and central Minnesota. Seasonal movements in the fall are influenced by the annual mast crop. An uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Restricted largely to the eastern United States, from the Great Plains east to the Atlantic coast, the Red-headed Woodpecker also occurs to a very limited extent in Canada, from southern Saskatchewan east to southern Quebec. The core of the species’ breeding range occurs in the Central Plains states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 13/20 and designated a Watch List species by Partners in Flight; designated a Minnesota Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and a Target Conservation Species by Audubon Minnesota.
Irregular or short-distance migrant; movements influenced by mast crop abundance.
Omnivorous diet of seeds, insects, and fruits acquired by fly catching, ground foraging, bark gleaning, bark drilling, and foliage gleaning. Mast crops are important in the winter.
Cavity in a dead tree or dead limb of a tree.
The Red-headed Woodpecker is on the northern periphery of its breeding range in Minnesota. Roberts (1932) originally described the species as a summer resident throughout the state. He remarked, however, that the birds were “most in evidence in the longer settled and cultivated portions of the state, extending its range into more heavily timbered and wilder regions only as they are cleared and inhabited.” Indeed, all 6 confirmed (nests with eggs or young) and inferred (nests only) county nesting records at the time were from southern, central, and northwestern Minnesota: Goodhue, Hennepin, Isanti, Polk, Ramsey, and Rock Counties.
In his account, Roberts mentions an 1878 publication by Dr. Elliot Coues on birds observed in the Red River valley. A surgeon and ornithologist from New England, Coues was working in the region for the U.S. Northern Boundary Commission in the late 1800s. His account of the birds he observed in the Dakota and Montana Territories mentioned that Red-headed Woodpeckers were common along the Red River at Pembina in June 1873 (Coues 1878). Unfortunately, by the time Roberts prepared his comprehensive account of the species nearly 50 years later, the Red-headed Woodpecker had become infrequent and sparsely distributed in the region.
Roberts also noted that during his lifetime an increasing number of Red-headed Woodpeckers were overwintering in the state. Most reports were from southeastern Minnesota, but there were scattered reports as far north as Stearns and Morrison Counties. These were localities where winter food resources were abundant, including “corn-cribs, corn-shocks, chicken-yards” and feeding stations (Roberts 1932).
When Green and Janssen (1975) prepared their updated species account years later, little had changed with respect to the species’ breeding distribution. During the winter months, the species was seen regularly as far north as Lake Mille Lacs and occasionally north to Wadena and southern St. Louis Counties. Janssen (1987) depicted the species’ breeding range as covering all of Minnesota except for most of the Arrowhead region and the north-central counties of Itasca, Koochiching, and Lake of the Woods. Nesting had been confirmed in 34 counties since 1970. Six more counties were added by Hertzel and Janssen in 1998.
Beginning their work in the late 1980s, field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey have reported a total of 320 breeding season locations. The vast majority were concentrated in the southern Prairie Parkland and the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Provinces (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, observers reported 637 Red-headed Woodpecker records from 9.7% (463/4,776) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 13.2% (309/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 2.2% (104) of the surveyed blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Birds were reported in 82 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed breeding in 48 counties (1 block straddled Anoka and Isanti Counties). Twenty-four of the counties were additions to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen (1998).
Red-headed Woodpeckers were most common and widely distributed in southern Minnesota, south of a line between the Twin Cities and Lac qui Parle County. Farther north, records were concentrated in the Brainerd Lakes region and the Aspen Parklands Province. With just a couple of exceptions, this species was absent from most of northeastern Minnesota as well as from the far northern reaches of central Minnesota. Perhaps the most notable record was in Cook County along the North Shore. The bird was observed in May 2010 on a large farm located a few miles north of the shore.
Overall, the breeding distribution of the Red-headed Woodpecker has changed very little since Roberts wrote the first comprehensive account in 1932. It certainly is more common in the Brainerd Lakes region now than in earlier times. Focused survey efforts by atlas observers in the region no doubt contributed to the large number of reports. But the region also provides more suitable habitat then it did 100 years ago. Today, much of this once extensively forested area has been cleared for industrial, residential, and recreational development, creating the open, fragmented landscape that is more suitable for the woodpeckers.
Elsewhere within their breeding range, significant population declines have led to distributional changes as well. For example, the northern edge of their breeding range has receded in Ontario, and they have virtually disappeared as a breeding species in New England (Cadman et al. 2007; Frei et al. 2017). Many distributional changes have been influenced by the presence or demise of trees that provided mast during the winter months or nesting cavities during the summer months, such as the American beech, American chestnut, and American elm.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.