A once common species in southern Ontario, sightings of this feisty, crimson-hooded bird have become increasingly rare by Tim Tiner
he red-headed woodpecker, even within its highly intriguing family, is an unusual character. The most scrappy, omnivorous and versatile of North American woodpeckers, the crimson-hooded bird is loud, bold and conspicuous, often perching on dead branches, posts and telephone wires. Yet, the once common denizen of southern Ontario is becoming so rare that few people in the province have ever seen one.
Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus (from Greek words meaning, respectively, black and red-headed)
Length: 19.523.5 cm
Weight: 5590 grams
Breeding territory: 38.5 ha
Drumming rate: 1925 beats per second
Nest hole entrance: 5.56 cm wide
Average clutch: 47 eggs
Incubation period: 1214 days
Fledging age: 2730 days
Tail and toes: To cling to tree trunks, the red-headed woodpecker has sharp claws like grappling hooks, two pointing forward and two pointing backward (some other woodpecker species have only one rear toe). Like others in its family, the bird props itself against tree trunks with its stiff, pointy tail feathers.
Red-heads have been little studied, so much remains unknown about them, including the reasons for their decline. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed this species as threatened in 2007, and Ontario has listed it as a species of special concern for the past dozen years.
Red-headed woodpeckers breed across the eastern and central United States and in southern Ontario, and also reach the southern fringes of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and, until recently, Quebec. Central to their needs are patches of large, dead, partly debarked trees or limbs, in which the birds excavate nest holes (over a period of about 12 to 17 days) and search for wood-boring beetles. However, red-heads mostly catch insects by hawking in the air like a flycatcher, often from a perch over open areas. They also probe the ground for ants like flickers do, feast on grasshoppers in August, slurp from the drillings of sapsuckers and occasionally prey on eggs, nestlings, small birds and even the odd mouse.
But two-thirds of the red-head’s diet is vegetable matter, including berries, wild cherries and, above all, beechnuts and acorns. A few turn up at feeders during mild winters in extreme southern Ontario, but most migrate south between late August and mid-October, settling between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, wherever they find forests with ample supplies of acorns and nuts. They are one of the few woodpeckers that store their food, smashing nuts and then cramming bits into tree holes and crevices. The birds guard their stash vigilantly on their small winter territories.
But these singular birds have been on a roller-coaster ride since the start of European settlement. Initially, they seemed to thrive from the opening of vast forests, expanding from snag-tangled riversides, beaver ponds and pockets of oak savannah to take advantage of the new landscape of rural woodlots interspersed with pastures, fencerows and orchards. In the 18th and 19th centuries, even towns and city parks rang with their brief, two- or three-part, beak-hammering territorial rolls and the loud, highpitched, repeated mating calls of males in early May. Males and females, unlike other woodpeckers, are identical, flying from one tree to the next while courting, taking turns peeking at each other from opposite sides of the trunk.
In the early 20th century, the numbers of this species fell steeply as the beech forests it depends on in fall and winter dwindled, and snags and dead branches were routinely removed from parks and woodlots. Populations recovered somewhat from the 1950s to the 1970s due to the bounty of dead trees left by chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease. Local densities sometimes increased five- to 13-fold in parts of the United States after mass elm die-offs, but the numbers dropped again as those trees fell. The continent’s population now stands at a third of estimates in 1966, when the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey began.
In Ontario, the red-head seems in full retreat. The province’s first bird atlas project between 1981 and 1985 found the species fairly consistently throughout most of southern Ontario, to the edge of the Canadian Shield. Just 20 years later, the second atlas noted that breeding-season sightings were down 64 percent, with red-heads turning up in about half as many localities, most close to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The provincial population, estimated at 3,400 pairs in 1994, fell to between 660 and 990 pairs in 2007. The bird also largely disappeared from the southern Canadian Shield, though some 30 to 50 pairs still breed in the Lake of the Woods area.
P. Allen Woodliffe, the Ministry of Natural Resources Aylmer district ecologist, remembers Christmas Bird Counts in the early 1980s recording up to 114 red-headed woodpeckers at Rondeau Provincial Park on Lake Erie. “In last year’s  Christmas counts, nowhere in Canada got more than one,” says Woodliffe. “Only two were seen in all of southwestern Ontario.”
The demise was long blamed on starlings, an alien species that aggressively usurps the nest holes of many native birds. But the feisty red-heads usually win out in competition for nesting places or food, driving off starlings, notoriously pugilistic blue jays and kingbirds, and even crow-sized pileated woodpeckers.
More likely causes of the population decline are modern farming practices that raze hedgerows, along with the closing in of regenerating forests and the spread of beechbark disease. Cars frequently kill the birds as they search for insects at roadside forest edges. One of the last redheaded woodpeckers seen nesting in Quebec was found dead several years ago on a roadside north of Montreal, says Carl Savignac, an independent biologist who wrote the COSEWIC assessment report on the species in 2007.
Savignac is conducting the first experimental study ever to create habitat for endangered woodpeckers, funded by Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program. He enlisted organic farmers and other ecologically conscious landowners at six sites on the Quebec side of the Ottawa Valley last year to create snags, by girdling patches of 15 to 20 aspens, which are plentiful, fast-growing, thin-barked softwoods that accommodate red-headed woodpeckers more readily than slower-to-decay hardwoods. Another six sites will be established this year. With such habitat, says Savignac, “the probability of colonization from active nests on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River is quite high.”
If the federal environment minister accepts COSEWIC’s recommendation to officially list the bird as threatened – a decision is expected by the end of 2009 – the Ontario region branch of the Canadian Wildlife Service will take the lead in developing a recovery plan for the species.
In your backyard
Suet is the favourite fare of most woodpeckers at winter feeders. Nuts are also popular. In particular, red-headed woodpeckers seem to fancy peanut butter and sunflower seeds. Flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers will also eat bread, while hairy woodpeckers seem to go for almost everything, including fruit and seeds. In the spring, flickers, downy woodpeckers and, occasionally, red-headed woodpeckers can be enticed to nest in backyard bird boxes placed two to six metres up on dead trees or poles.