Breeding Bird Atlas 2 Species Accounts

Red-headed Woodpecker

Melanerpes erythrocephalus

  • Very local, trend not established
“The Red-headed Woodpecker is the handsomest and most conspicuous of our woodpeckers. It is the bird that first excited the ardor of Alexander Wilson by its splendid colors and inspired him with the ambition to become an ornithologist.” – Edward Howe Forbush, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States

Red-headed Woodpeckers are boldly patterned, easily identifiable, and very active. These traits make them a favorite among birders, and their breeding in Massachusetts is infrequent enough to be an exciting event. Red-headed Woodpeckers are much more numerous south and west of Massachusetts, but they do breed rarely and irregularly in the Commonwealth. Historically, however, the species was far more widespread within the Bay State.

Historic Status

Early Massachusetts ornithologists actually knew the Red-headed Woodpecker as “perhaps the most common of this familiar race” (Peabody 1839), which is remarkable considering its current range and abundance. However, by the 1860s, men like Charles Johnson Maynard, the famed egg and nest collector of Massachusetts, said “I have never seen it living” (Maynard 1870). The bird became a rare visitor at any time of the year, and by 1900 observers were describing a nest in Agawam in 1889 as the last one known in the state (Howe & Allen 1901). Edward Howe Forbush commented on its erratic and seemingly nomadic behavior in 1927, referring to mass fall migrations through the state in 1881 and 1894, and also including a breeding map that would make modern observers envious of the species’ former breeding footprint (Forbush 1927).

Atlas 1 Distribution

During the Atlas 1 surveys the Red-headed Woodpecker remained the rarest of Massachusetts’ breeding woodpecker species. Even though Red-headed Woodpeckers could not be counted on to breed every year, several breeding records were collected during Atlas 1. The lowland areas of western Massachusetts – the Marble Valleys and Connecticut River Valley – each had a small number of breeding Red-headed Woodpeckers. Throughout the rest of the state, the only breeding indications were Possible records in the Lower Worcester Plateau and the Bristol/Narragansett Lowlands, and a Confirmed nest in Lynn in the northern Boston Basin.

Atlas 2 Distribution and Change

Atlas 2 found Red-headed Woodpeckers continuing to erratically breed in very small numbers across the state, although no Confirmations were made during the second Atlas period. Two Possible blocks, one each in the Vermont Piedmont and Connecticut River Valley regions, were the only suggestions of Red-headed Woodpecker breeding in the western half of the state—the area formerly most likely to host this admittedly rare species. The Coastal Plains and Bristol/Narragansett Lowlands also reported one block apiece, and the state’s only block with Probable breeding evidence included the Harbor Islands in the Boston Basin. Always irregular as breeders in Massachusetts, Red-headed Woodpeckers will have, at best, a tenuous nesting presence in the Bay State for the foreseeable future.




Atlas 1 Map

Atlas 2 Map

Atlas Change Map


Ecoregion Data

 Atlas 1Atlas 2Change
Ecoregion# Blocks% Blocks% of Range# Blocks% Blocks% of RangeChange in # BlocksChange in % Blocks
Taconic Mountains00.
Marble Valleys/Housatonic Valley25.
Berkshire Highlands00.
Lower Berkshire Hills00.
Vermont Piedmont00.00.015.916.700.0
Berkshire Transition00.
Connecticut River Valley35.437.511.516.7-2-4.2
Worcester Plateau00.
Lower Worcester Plateau11.412.500.00.0-1-1.9
S. New England Coastal Plains and Hills00.00.010.416.710.4
Boston Basin11.812.511.816.700.0
Bristol and Narragansett Lowlands10.912.510.916.700.0
Cape Cod and Islands00.00.010.716.700.0
Statewide Total80.8100.060.6100.0-4-0.5


Red-headed Woodpecker shows a significant decreasing Breeding Bird Survey trend in the Eastern US overall.