For the Birds Radio Program: Red-headed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Nov. 10, 2003

Laura misses the days when Red-headed Woodpeckers were common.

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Red-headed Woodpeckers

A few weeks ago, I decided to remodel my home office, and plastered the walls with dozens of posters I’ve been collecting over the years. I have two from 1898 by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, two from 1917 by the Arm and Hammer Baking Soda Company, another from Arm and Hammer from 1938, and a host of more recent ones. And as I look over them, I can’t help but notice how many show the Red-headed Woodpecker, usually illustrated as a common bird.

When I started birding in 1975, Red-headed Woodpeckers were, indeed, common—this was #20 on my life list, the very first woodpecker I ever saw, at Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus. When Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, Red-headed Woodpeckers were often seen from Hawk Ridge migrating along the north shore, and one late September day I saw five immature birds all on the light pole across the street from my house. Russ and I often saw them as we drove along highways in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota—they were easily recognized by the huge white areas on their wings. Unfortunately, we saw them dead along the roadsides, too, and much more frequently than we saw other road-killed species. But no one seemed to think that was significant at the time.

But now Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined 55% or more across their North American range since 1966, about 70% in Wisconsin alone. They’re on the endangered species list in Connecticut. Highways have indeed been a serious factor—of all the woodpeckers, Red-headeds move about the most, and tend to swoop low in their flights across open areas, putting them directly in line with automobiles. But there are plenty of other causes for their decline, too. They nest primarily in large dead hardwood trees, far less available with increasing urbanization and current forest management. And they have to compete for the fewer available cavities with European Starlings. Starlings are smaller than Red-headed Woodpeckers, but extremely effective at stealing nest holes. Once a starling gets inside, it can defend the hold against woodpeckers because of a unique feature on a starling’s beak. The muscles are arranged to provide power as the beak opens rather than as it closes, and so a starling can stab a bird with its beak, and then force the beak open, rendering the wound far more lethal. Red-headed Woodpeckers feed on mast, so hardwood logging and other land-use changes hurt their numbers, too. And one of the trees they once depended on for food and nest sites was the American Elm, so even Dutch elm disease affected their numbers.

Of course nature abhors a vacuum, so even as red-headed woodpeckers have declined, Red-bellied Woodpeckers have increased. But I miss the days when it was easy to see both species. It’s far better to have two fairly common species than one abundant species and one endangered one.

This fall, there have been a few sightings of red-headed woodpeckers along the north shore reported on the bird hotlines. This is, of course, good news. But I sure miss the days when we could take pleasure in this elegant bird’s sheer beauty, without brooding over its rareness. I look at the natural resources of our world as investments to be carefully nurtured and tended for our children’s children’s children’s futures. We’re supposed to cash in the interest, not the principal. Losing 50 or 70% of such an important bird bodes ill for our future.