Natural History

Natural Features

One person's experience with nesting Red-headed

Woodpeckers in southern Michigan in a specific habitat.

The Deciduous Snag Swamp and the

Red-headed Woodpecker

Keith F. Saylor



The thoughts, observations, and experiences shared in this article are drawn from personal field experience.


In southern Michigan, Red-headed Woodpeckers (REHEWO) regularly nest in wetlands with deciduous tree snags. These wetlands are referred to here as snag swamps. A snag is a standing dead and decaying tree. A snag swamp is multiple snags standing in saturated soil or open water.

The snag swamp is a compelling nest site for the REHEWOs. The size of the swamp does not influence whether a pair will nest. Nesting pairs are found in quarter acre sites and ten acre sites or more. Also, the swamp can be dominated by vegetation (cattails, woody shrubs etc.) or contain very little.


Human activity is not a deterrent to REHEWOs choosing the site as a nesting location. They will nest in sites with heavy human activity and sites with very little. They can benefit from human alternation of hydrology. For example, construction projects that restrict water flow or drainage and cause a backflow or flooding of a wooded area. Agricultural activity, where drainage is less restricted because of plowed fields, also creates snag swamp habitat in wooded lowland sites bordered by or near ag. fields. These sites cannot absorb the increased water flow causing flooding of the area and the death of the trees. Golf course construction also results in snag swamp habitat. Natural events such as beaver activity in wild areas also produce snag swamps for the same reason. 

An issue in each case can be the want of some to cut the snags because they are perceived as an "eye sore." In many cases, this want is easily resolved favorably for the REHEWOs (and all those other species that call snags their home) by gently pointing out and showing how important snags are to so many species and using the gorgeous REHEWO as the poster child for the snag swamp. Guiding an individual or individuals to a personal experience of adult REHEWOs feeding their young at their nest cavity is compelling and most often resolves the issue with little or no discussion ... it speaks for itself. I will say this, especially in the context of farming, it really really really really really really really really really helps to bring the farmer's wife and children into the dynamic.

Small snag swamp surrounded by Ag. field.

In this specific habitat type, the key components to look for are the combination of dead deciduous trees (snags) and a water component. REHEWOs prefer deciduous snags over conifer snags. It may be the case they reject conifer snags altogether. The depth of water or the overall size of the wetland does not seem a factor in whether a REHEWO pair nests in the location.

Decaying snags are not stable (relatively speaking) components of the REHEWOs natural history. Because they are naturally decaying, and many species build or use the cavities in them further undermining the snags stability, they are susceptible to windfall. High winds, during a single storm, can and do topple many or all the snags in a swamp, especially smaller snag swamps, making the area unattractive nesting habitat for the REHEWO pair.

Competition with other cavity nesting species can also impact the REHEWOs choice of nest site generally and a snag in particular. In snag swamps, within urban and pastoral contexts, REHEWOs must often compete with non-native bird species (House Sparrow and European Starling). These non-native species make it more difficult for REHEWOs seeking a snag to nest within; especially when native cavity nesters are added to the dynamic. However, they are very capable competitors and can be very aggressive when establishing themselves on a snag and in defending their nest cavity once established. Those REHEWOs that do not manifest an aggressive manner or behavior, are often pushed off suitable nesting habitat; especially in urban or pastoral contexts. Subtle interspecies mannerism or behavioral differences reveal themselves through observation of multiple nest sites of the same species.

The deciduous snag swamp existence is very mutable and dynamic often forcing potential nesting REHEWOs to seek other sites; because of this, locating many sites is necessary to sustain observational opportunities. Many, if not a majority, are on private property. Contact with property owners for access permission is essential. Talking with property owners is educational because they often have insight into the history of the snag swamp and the bird species that visit and nest.

A Scouting Tool

It is helpful the view aerial images before visiting an area. The aerial below shows possible snag wetland sites.

The site circled in blue is a small snag swamp. A REHEWO pair nested on the site last year. The other sites were not snag swamps. Below is a closeup of the swamp circled in blue.

It is good habit to visit each promising site and not prejudge a site by aerial views alone. Aerials should not prejudice whether a site is a swamp snag one way or the other; they are only indicators of possibilities. Direct, on the ground, personal experience is definitive.

The aerial below is of a known snag swamp that annually hosts nesting REHEWO.

The white lines throughout the wetland are mostly fallen snags just beneath or above the water. Fallen snags sometimes manifest on aerial images in larger, relatively open, wetlands. The question is whether there are standing snags. In any case, the site is promising and could prove a snag swamp. Here are two images of the site from the ground.

The REHEWO does not restrict its nest location to the deciduous snag swamp. It is a resourceful bird, nesting in a number of different habitats and locations. However, a wetland with deciduous snags is reliable habitat to find them nesting in southern Michigan.

If you are interested in locating and observing REHEWOs in southern Michigan, seek out the Deciduous Snag Swamp. It is probable diligence will be rewarded.

Keith F. Saylor

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Red-headed Woodpecker

Nest Site

Video Clips

by: Keith F. Saylor

Sunrise over snag swamp. 

Red-headed Woodpecker flying to nest. 

Snag Swamp Landscape 

Red-headed Woodpecker on Branch 

Red-headed Woodpecker Catching Insects 

Feeding Young at Nest Cavity 

Bringing insects to feed young in nest cavity. 

Preparing food on natural cutting board. 

To nest cavity with food. 

Red-headed Woodpecker Traffic Mortality 

Red-headed Woodpecker Juvenile at Nest Cavity 

Feeding Juvenile at Nest Cavity. 

Juvenile at Nest 

A Snag Swamp Sunset 


A Slideshow with more video clips. 


Thoughts on the

Red-headed Woodpecker

from the Past


The Bird Book

Chester A. Read


Range - United States, east of the Rockies, except New England; north to northern Canada; winters in southern United States.

This beautiful species has a bright red head, neck and breast, glossy blue black back, wings and tail, and white underparts, rump and secondaries. It is the most abundant of the family in the greater portion of its range, where it nests in any kind of trees of in telegraph poles at any height from the ground; they also sometimes nest in holes under the eaves of buildings. They are the most pugnacious of the Woodpeckers, and are often seen chasing one another or driving and some other bird. They are also known to destroy the nests and eggs of many species, and also kill and devour the young, they being the only Woodpecker, so far as known, to have acquired this disreputable habit; they also feed upon, besides ants and larvae, many kinds of fruit and berries. Their nesting season is during May and June, when they lay from four to eight white eggs, with less gloss than those of the Flicker. Size 1.00 x.75


Nests and Eggs of North American Birds

Oliver Davie

The Landon Press


Geog. Dist. - United States and British Provinces, west to the Rocky Mountains, occasionally farther. Rare or casual east of the Hudson River.

One of the most familiar birds in Eastern United States. It is found almost everywhere - in deep forests and open woods, in groves, orchards and solitary trees in fields, or along the roadside, and on the open prairies. A bird of manifold tricks and manners - some are commendable, and some are not. It is known to rob and demolish the nests of the Cliff Swallows; oftentimes whole colonies of these nests are destroyed by this woodpecker. It seems to have considerable foresight in "looking out for the rainy day ahead" by storing grasshoppers, acorns, and beech nuts in the cracks and crevices of posts, in the cavities of partially decayed trees, and under patches of raised bark. Berries and various fruits are likewise a portion of its food. A cavity for the nest is dug in the decayed trunk of any kind of tree of sufficient thickness, and in almost any situation. Telegraph poles are often resorted to. On the open, treeless prairies it has been known to nest in the angle formed by the shares of an upturned plow, and necessity often compels this bird to make its nest under the roofs or in any dark hole it may find on the prairie farms. The eggs are five or six in number; when fresh and before blowing, like those of all woodpeckers, show the yolk through the translucent shell, which gives them a beautiful pinkish appearance. After blowing they are of a clear, glossy-white. The average size is .99x.78.

Bird Homes:

The nests, eggs, and breeding habits of the landbirds breeding in the eastern United States; with hints on the rearing and photographing of young birds.

Arthur Radclyff Dugmore

Doubleday and McClure


Adult—Entire head and throat crimson; back, tail, and primaries black; rump, tail coverts, and belly white. Length—9.75.

Breeding Range—From northern New York southwa1d; rare in New England.

4 to 6 glossy white eggs are laid in a hole in either tree or stump, or even telegraph pole. Size—1.oo x .78.

These birds, in their bright tricolour of red, white, and black, are conspicuous wherever found; it is diff1cult to imagine a much more striking plumage; whether in the air, against the tree trunk, or in the foliage, one of their broad patches of colour is sure to be visible.

In some respects these woodpeckers almost resemble flycatchers; they sit on an isolated tree or stump, making short sallies after insects; these they catch with great dexterity in midair, invariably returning to the same place, which is sometimes within a few feet of their nest. The breeding holes, which are new each season, are often in large, live trees of almost any variety, but I think stumps and dead or partly dead trees are perhaps preferred; in some instances the eggs have been deposited in buildings.

The breeding season begins rather before the middle of May.

Michigan Bird Life

Walter Bradford Barrows


Our only woodpecker with entirely red head and neck. Otherwise conspicuous by the velvet black back, wings and tail, with large areas of white on wings and rump.

Distribution.—United States, west to the Rocky Mountains, and north from Florida to about latitude 50°, straggling westward to Salt Lake Valley and Arizona; rare or local east of the Hudson River.

This is one of our best known woodpeckers, abundant in most places and apparently not entirely absent from any section of the state. It frequents equally the small groves of timber in cultivated districts and the slashings and edges of heavy timber in the wilder parts of the state. It is the woodpecker oftenest seen in driving along country roads, where it flies from fencepost to telephone pole and by its noisy cries and striking plumage attracts the attention of the most.

The great majority of individuals move southward at the approach of cold weather, returning again in numbers in the latter part of April or early in May. A few, however, linger with us all winter, at least in the southern half of the state, feeding largely on nuts, but hunting insect larvse in decayed wood in the same manner as other woodpeckers.

The food in summer is very varied and is about equally divided between animal and vegetable substances. One hundred and one stomachs examined at the Department of Agriculture, and reported on by Professor Beal, give the following results: Animal food 50 percent, vegetable food 47 percent, sand and gravel 3 percent. All but 1 percent of the animal food consisted of insects, the remaining 1 percent being made up of spiders and myriapods. The insect food included the following items: Ants 11 percent, beetles 31 percent, grasshoppers 5 per cent, caterpillars 1 percent, plant lice 1 percent. Unfortunately a very large part of the beetles eaten (24 percent) consisted of the predaceous families Carabidœ and Cicindelidsc (the ground beetles and tiger beetles), which are mainly beneficial. The ants are of doubtful utility, so that practically the main good done in the consumption of insects lies in the caterpillars, grasshoppers and plant lice eaten, which aggregate only 7 percent of the food. To quote Prof. Beal "A preference for large beetles is one of the pronounced characteristics of this woodpecker. Weevils were found in 15 stomachs, and in several cases as many as ten were present. Remains of Carabid beetles were found in 44 stomachs to an average of 24 percent of the contents of those that contained them, or ten percent of all. The fact that 43 percent of all the birds taken had eaten these beetles, some of them to the extent of 16 individuals, shows a decided fondness for these insects, and taken with the fact that 5 stomachs contained Cicindelids or tiger beetles forms a rather strong indictment against the bird." In Tazewell county, 111., Professor Forbes found it eating cankerworms freely in orchards overrun with them.

The 47 per cent of vegetable food covered 33 percent of fruit, much of it cultivated, and a considerable amount of corn, much of it in the milk. Among the cultivated fruits eaten freely were apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, besides many wild fruits. The Red-head is also known to eat both cultivated and wild grapes in quantity. During autumn and winter it eats large numbers of acorns and beech nuts and sometimes stores these away in large quantities in hollow trees, fenceposts and similar cavities.

Practically the only favorable statement that can be made in regard to the vegetable food of this bird is the fact that it does not seem to eat the berries of poison sumac or poison ivy, and so is not one of the birds responsible for the distribution of these noxious plants.

One disagreeable trait which has been observed several times is its habit of eating the eggs and even the young of other birds, and this not always for the sake of getting them out of coveted nesting places, but apparently from hunger, or from mere mischief. Dr. II. H. Wolcott writes that he has seen this bird destroy the eggs of the Wood Thrush and suspected it of other depredations. Bendire gives several instances of what he calls its " canabalistic tendency."

Captain Bendire describes its notes as follows: "Its ordinary call-note is a loud tchur-tchur ; when chasing each other a shrill note like charr-charr is frequently uttered, an alarm is expressed by a harsh rattling note as well as by one, which, according ? Mr. Otto Widmann, is indistinguishable from the note of the tree frog. He tells me that both bird and frog sometimes answer each other. * * * From an economic view it appears to me certainly to do fully as much if not more harm than good, and I consider it less worthy of protection than any of our woodpeckers, the Yellow-breasted Sapsucker not excepted."

In Kalamazoo county the late Richard B. Westnedge took nests of fresh eggs from May 21 to May 28, and often farther north eggs are not laid before the first week in June. The nest is a hole in the dead trunk or branch of a tree, the entrance being about 1J inches in diameter and the depth of the hole varying from eight inches to two feet. Usually the nests are at a considerable height from the ground, rarely less than ten feet and often sixty feet or more. Not infrequently telephone poles are used for nesting, but we have never seen a nest in a fencepost. But one brood is reared in the season, but, as with other species, a second laying is made if the first set of eggs be taken (July 11, 1877, Kalamazoo count}'). The eggs vary from four to seven, are white, unspotted and glossy, and average .97 by .75 inches.


Adult male: Entire head and neck, all round, deep crimson; back, scapulars, and most of wings glossy black; terminal half of secondaries, rump and upper tail-coverts pure while; under parts, from lower neck to tail, pure white, sometimes washed with yellowish or orange on the belly; tail entirely black, or a few of the outer feathers white-tipped; bill blackish or horn-colored; iris brown.

Adult female: Similar to male, but usually with a narrow belt of clear black between the red throat and white breast, and the inner secondaries always more or less barrel or spotted with black.

Young: Without any red, or only a few feathers, on head and neck, these parts brownish gray, thickly spotted or mottled with blackish, and breast and sides streaked with tho same; rump and tail as in old birds; all the secondaries white, barred or spotted with black.

Length 9.2.5 to 9.75 inches; wing 5.30 to 5.7(1; tail 3.60 to 3.75; culmen .90 to 1.15.

"The love of nature in any form is an acquisition well worth striving for. Besides adding enormously to one's interest in a walk, whether on the high road or along the woodland paths, it is a resource which would do a great deal towards banishing that silly phrase, " I wish I had something to do." How often do we hear people say that, even when living in the country where wild life in its thousands of different phases exists all around them, unnoticed by all except the very few who are devoting themselves to some particular study. Unfortunately the power of observation is lacking in most of us who have not been trained to it—we look without seeing."

Arthur Radclyff Dugmore

Bird Homes

Written, Photographic, and Video Content

All Rights Reserved - Keith F. Saylor