Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

Dr. Lesley Bulluck

Second Advisor

Dr. Catherine Viverette

Third Advisor

Dr. Derek Johnson

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Rodney Dyer

Fifth Advisor

Dr. Bryan Watts


Parental care in animals can be costly and is shared between both parents in many bird species. Not surprisingly, most studies of how parental care is shared between the sexes are in sexually dimorphic species, and much less in known about sexually monomorphic species where sex cannot be determined in the field. This has prevented a full understanding of parental care behaviors – which are intrinsically linked to fitness – in species such as the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) that is experiencing population declines throughout much of its range. In this study we assessed whether Redheaded Woodpecker brooding time, nestling provisioning rates, and nest cleaning rates vary as a function of parent sex, habitat type (savanna and closed canopy forest), brood size, nestling age, temperature and/or date. We recorded and analyzed 128 hours of high-quality video from 21 broods at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia where this species is relatively abundant. We captured and color-banded Red-headed Woodpeckers, taking breast feather samples for genetic sexing, and determined brood size and chick age of nests using an extendable pole camera. Using generalized linear mixed models, we found the best predictor of nestling provisioning was an interaction between chick age and date; older chicks were fed more frequently in early summer (before 7 July) compared to late summer. The seasonal reduction in provisioning could be related to a reduction in resource availability, but whether or not provisioning in later nests affects nestling survival warrants further study. We found chick age and parent sex to be the best predictors in brooding models, with females brooding more when chicks are less than 10 days old and males being the only parent to enter the cavity after 10 days. Additionally, males almost exclusively remove fecal sacs from nests, highlighting an observational method to determine sex of breeding adults in the field. Such division of reproductive roles is similar to what is known for dimorphic woodpecker species and likely indicates energetic constraints due to the need for high parental investment from both sexes.

Parental care is inextricably linked with habitat quality and home range size. Parents will travel to obtain the resources necessary to provision their young, and larger home ranges during the demanding nestling provisioning stage may indicate increased effort resulting from fewer available resources near the nest. We estimated home range sizes of 25 breeding adult Red-headed Woodpeckers using PinPoint GPS tags and 95% kernel density estimates (KDEs) with plug-in smoothing factors. We modeled the effects of habitat, sex, nest stage, date, and distance to nearest neighbor on home range estimates. Red-headed Woodpecker males have larger home ranges than females, and late summer home ranges are smaller than those measured before 7 July. More study is needed to determine if sex or date is a stronger factor on home range, given our naive sampling which resulted in more females sampled in late summer and observations that did not continue to the end of the breeding season (late August). Since we found date to be an influential factor to both provisioning rate and home range size, it is possible that seasonal resource changes are an important, unstudied factor related to nationwide declines of this species.


© Lynn Abigail Walter

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VCU University Archives

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VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission


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Ornithology Commons