Wild Georgia: A patriotic salute to the red-headed woodpecker

A red-headed woodpecker, shown in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, is sometimes called the “flag bird” or “patriotic bird” because of its red, white and blue-black plumage. (Courtesy of Lilac Breasted Roller/Creative Commons)

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A red-headed woodpecker, shown in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, is sometimes called the “flag bird” or “patriotic bird” because of its red, white and blue-black plumage. (Courtesy of Lilac Breasted Roller/Creative Commons)

Happy Fourth. You can expect to see our patriotic colors red, white and blue nearly everywhere this weekend in honor of Independence Day on Monday. Likewise, our national symbol, the majestic bald eagle, will be on prominent display.

Another Georgia bird, the red-headed woodpecker, won’t get as much attention, but some say it also could serve as a patriotic symbol of sorts. In fact, it’s sometimes called the “flag bird” or “patriotic bird” because of its eye-catching red, white and bluish-black plumage.

Whatever its nickname, there’s no doubt that it’s the handsomest of Georgia’s eight woodpecker species. Numerous veteran birders say their interest in birds was ‘“sparked” by their first sighting of a red-headed woodpecker. (Most woodpeckers have some red on their heads, but the aptly named red-headed is the only one with a solid red noggin.)

With its bright red head, a snow-white belly and glossy, bluish-black wings sporting white patches, the red-headed woodpecker makes me almost want to salute it as it darts about in pursuit of flying insects. I watched one doing that the other day during a bird walk in Decatur Cemetery. Since both sexes look alike, I couldn’t tell if it was male or female.

When the former Atlanta Audubon Society last year went statewide and renamed itself Georgia Audubon, it chose the red-headed woodpecker for its new logo. But as the group notes, the species’ numbers have declined alarmingly in recent decades due, in large part, to the loss of its forest habitat and nesting sites.

Ironically, another reason for the woodpecker’s demise is its tendency to swoop down from a high perch and snatch flying insects. The habit frequently takes it over roadways, where it often gets struck and killed by cars.

The red-headed woodpecker is one of only four of North America’s 23 woodpecker species that commonly store food, such as insects, acorns and other nuts, in cracks and crevices of trees. It sometimes visits suet feeders and also is fond of apples, pears, cherries and other fruits.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first quarter on Wednesday. Rising in the east are Mercury (very low), just before dawn; Venus, a few hours before sunrise; Mars, around 2 a.m.; Jupiter, around midnight; and Saturn, a few hours after dark.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.