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The Adams County Red Heads

Written by Eli, one of our Monthly Youth Correspondents, this blog talks about the gorgeous red headed birds that can be found in Adams County – the Red-headed Woodpecker!

Adams County is known for a lot of things- Civil War battles, apples, quaint meadows. There is one thing though that is overlooked by many people visiting the area. It is found all throughout the county and is incredibly beautiful. That one thing is the “Fabulous Red-heads of Adams County”. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, what the heck is this guy talking about? What Red-Heads?
So to those of you who are unfamiliar, Adams County is one of the last areas in Pennsylvania in which you can see large numbers of Red- headed Woodpeckers. These charming, charismatic birds, with their red heads and black & white bodies are found across most of Adams County’s farmlands and countryside. They are often seen in open woodlands and areas with dead trees or snags. In recent years, they have benefited from snags created from the emerald ash borer, an invasive Asian beetle that has killed off most of Pennsylvania’s ash trees and left behind a trail of snags in its wake.
Red-headed Woodpeckers have a broad diet and will consume a large variety of insects and seeds. In fact, they have the broadest diet of all Pennsylvania woodpeckers. One interesting behavior that Red-headed Woodpeckers often exhibit that many woodpeckers don’t, is the tendency to forage on the ground. This behavior is sometimes called “anting” because they are, in many cases, eating ants. However, they are often times consuming more than just ants. I have observed them putting whole acorns in their beaks and then flying away to stash their find. They are one of only four species of North American woodpeckers to stash acorns.
In many areas, Red-headed Woodpeckers use power lines as “highways’’ to travel between feeding sites, and often times, power poles in “Red- Head Country” are littered with holes. In Adams County, almost every telephone pole bares the scars of Red-heads. Red-Headed Woodpeckers used to be regarded as pests and shot in some areas because of the amount of damage they did to telephone poles. This is now illegal to do and Red-headed Woodpeckers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Photo Credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a cavity nester, meaning it makes its nest in holes. Usually it makes its nest in a tree cavity, but may occasionally use other places. Nesting begins in late spring and lasts until mid-summer. Often nests are reused for a number of years in a row, so nest construction is usually minimal. Their eggs are white with no markings, and they are normally laid in clutches of 4-5 eggs. After a two week incubation period, the eggs hatch out. The nestlings do not fledge or fly until almost a month after they are born. Once they have fledged, the young Red-heads stay close to home for their first year. The yearlings look like their parents except they are black and white. The signature red head of the Red-headed Woodpecker doesn’t appear until the second year.
Adams County is blessed with an abundant population of Red-headed Woodpeckers. Statewide, their population has declined 46% since 1989 and nationally, the Red-head population has declined 2.6% a year since 1966. This decline is due to a wide variety of issues, both natural and man-made, but land use change, invasive species, and the cutting of high value snags are the biggest factors in the decline.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are a wonderful example of nature’s beauty. Their brilliant plumage and intriguing behavior will capture your imagination. So the next time you are visiting Adams County, be sure to take sometime to look in wonder at the fabulous Red-headed Woodpecker. You will not be disappointed.


To view the full size Red-headed woodpecker photo, or more of Kenneth Cole Schneider’s avian photos, you can visit his blog: Rosyfinch Ramblings.