Melanerpes cruentatus is monotypic; no subspecies are recognized. Nonetheless this species exhibits significant geographic variation. In the northeastern portion of its range (eastern Venezuela, the Guianas, Brazil north of the Amazon and east of the Rio Negro, and south of the Amazon in eastern Pará), the so-called black headed morph is prevalent. The black headed morph lacks the pale postocular streak and the yellow nape, and, in the male, the patch of red on the crown is more round, less rectangular. Although most individuals are "pure" for the yellow-tufted or black-headed morph, intermediates also are frequent, showing some signs of the postocular streak, the nape patch, or both (Short 1970). The black-headed morph previously was recognized as a separate species, Melanerpes rubrifrons.