Plight of threatened Red-headed Woodpecker highlights need for holistic conservation strategy

November 8, 2016

By Sandy Klowak

Like many species including moose, and golden winged warblers, the red headed woodpecker thrive in habitats that are dynamic and transitional in nature. Younger, disturbed forest areas that have not yet reached maturity or open forest areas where the boreal blends into grasslands can offer ideal conditions for these annual migrants.  It’s a species in peril that underlines the importance of taking a large scale approach to conservation so that natural processes of disturbance and regeneration can ensure reliable habitat availability. Read our newest blog on the challenges facing this species.

Credit: cre8foru 2009Treed cemeteries and cattle feedlots might not be the most common places to find birders, but if they are looking to catch sight of the red-headed woodpecker, they probably know they’re in a good spot.

The red-headed woodpecker, about 20 cm long and sporting a vibrant red head and neck that contrasts with its black and white body, makes its home in Manitoba in the unique ecotone, or zone, between the prairie and the Boreal forest. It’s also designated federally and provincially as a Threatened Species largely due to human activities.

“They’re quite common in parts of Manitoba where you find open aspen and oak forest in the parkland transition zone, the ecotone between the Boreal forest and the greater prairie biomes, where deciduous forests dominate,” explains Dr. Christian Artuso, an ornithologist and conservationist with Bird Studies Canada. “This includes southeastern Manitoba east of Winnipeg but west of the Whiteshell, the southern Interlake, and western Manitoba between Riding Mountain and Lake Manitoba (even north to the Porcupine Hills). They do also occur in southwest Manitoba where there are suitable deciduous woods. ”

The red-headed woodpecker prefers this transition zone, in which it can find open aspen and oak forests with a relatively thin understorey that allows them to fly low and even feed right on the ground. Dead wood is their preferred location for feeding and nesting. You’ll find them particularly in spots like forest edges, orchards, along rivers, around ponds, in addition to more developed locations like cattle feedlots, rural parks and cemeteries (as long as dead trees are not removed), which all provide their ideal, sparsely-treed habitat.

This woodpecker’s range spans west to east from the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast and north to south from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It breeds in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as south-western Ontario and Quebec. It winters in the United States, in locations dependent upon availability of acorns and beechnuts, their main winter food source. In warmer months they add insects they catch mid-flight to their diet, as well as eggs and nestlings of other species.

The red-headed woodpecker is listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and provincially under the Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. The main threat to this species is habitat loss, including the removal of dead trees in which it nests.  Rurally, loss of habitat can stem from clear-cutting, firewood cutting, intensive farming, loss of riparian forests and river channeling. Other secondary threats include beech bark disease as beechnuts are a significant food source, collisions with vehicles as the bird forages by roadsides, and pesticides and chemicals.

According to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), there has been an overall 3.4 per cent decline per year between 1968-2005, indicating a 70 per cent decrease in population in 37 years. Federally, the red-headed woodpecker is one of the species for which a recovery strategy is in preparation. And while that’s certainly a good thing, Artuso says that a more holistic conservation approach is ultimately needed, especially for species in the Boreal-parkland transition zone.  “This ecotone has a distinct group of species and it’s important that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” he says. “The red-headed woodpecker is joined by other federal Species At Risk in this habitat type, including the golden-winged warbler, eastern whip-poor-will and others. This area is relatively narrow and confined in Manitoba and would benefit from a big-picture planning and management effort.” Beyond the transition zone, the Boreal biome itself is crying out for a more holistic approach to utilizing resources sustainably and in such a way as to preserve ecosystem process and function.

But for species like the red-headed woodpecker, the conservations solutions aren’t always the most obvious.

“A lot of people think of loss of forests as the problem,” says Artuso. “But one of the interesting things about the red-headed woodpecker is that it’s a bird of very open forest types. One of the problems is afforestation, areas are growing back into thicker forest, partly because of fire suppression, and without fire, the habitat gets much denser, which is good for some birds but not for the red-headed woodpecker.”

Artuso notes one management tool used to reclaim habitat for the red-headed woodpecker, at least in some parts of its range, is the practice of forest thinning, i.e. selectively removing certain trees or promoting the successional process, as well as prescribed burning.
“It’s very nuanced. The forest is a dynamic thing– all ecosystems are dynamic. Humans have this love of stability, we want everything to stay the same but nature doesn’t do that.”

In order to cater to the very diverse habitat needs of different species in the Boreal biome and its transitional zones, Artuso says we need to start looking at conservation differently.

“The cumulative burden of trying to safeguard more and more species as they become listed one after another and the fact that sometimes their needs are not necessarily complimentary is making the single species conservation model increasingly difficult,” he says. “This is really why I feel we need bigger, broader approaches. We need ecosystem approaches.”

Image credit 1: crea8foru 2009

Image credit 2: Fred Roe

Image 3 credit: zenbikescience

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