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© Lora Denis
Any birder who’s seen one, will tell you about the excitement of spotting a red-headed woodpecker. With a striking crimson head and a loud, harsh call, this unmistakable woodpecker takes centre stage on the backyard suet or drilling away into a tree. But unfortunately, things are changing quickly for this woodland standout.
A May 2021 assessment by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) listed the red-headed woodpecker as endangered in Ontario, along with 14 newly added plants and animals. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed the bird as endangered in 2018 – the species is currently down to approximately only 6,000 individuals across North America.
Commonly confused with the red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, the red-headed woodpecker is one of the most opportunistic woodpeckers in North America. Preferring open deciduous forests with a mix of living and non-living trees, they require undisturbed mature forests that unfortunately are also in decline in Ontario.
One of the biggest threats to red-headed woodpeckers in the province is habitat loss. The red-headed woodpecker, like many other cavity nesters such as tree swallows and chickadees, are significantly impacted by a decline in mature hardwoods. Hardwoods like American beech are especially important to the omnivorous woodpecker as it depends heavily on beechnuts as a winter food source.
Birds need dead trees just as much as living ones. Dead trees, an eyesore to property owners, are prime real estate to a host of species including the red-headed woodpecker. Diseases like chestnut blight and Dutch elm leave landowners with a lifeless trunk on their property and are swiftly removed, taking with them vital nesting sites for the woodpecker. This steady decrease in suitable habitat leads to increased competition for nesting sites from non-native species like the European starling; further threatening the red-headed woodpecker’s population.
Setting aside dead trees as “Wildlife Trees,” and encouraging private landowners to understand the ecological value of non-living trees is a first step in helping the red-headed woodpecker.
The red-headed woodpecker’s fast-tracked status from threatened to endangered is not an isolated case. In the same 2021 report, COSSARO declared two subtypes of lake whitefish extinct. The official Species at Risk in Ontario has not been updated since August 2018, but declining populations will not wait for provincial recognition. The red-headed woodpecker, among many other plants and animals of Ontario need conservation attention now.
Learn more about species at risk in Ontario and how you can help through our Species at Risk in Northern Ontario Nature Guide. You can also read more about threats migratory birds face in Ontario.
I lived in Missouri and grew up there in the 80’s. I used to see Red-headed all the time on our property. None have been seen there in years. Then in 2010 I bought a cabin in the MO Ozarks. The only one I saw was dead on the country road, apparently hit by a car. They like to eat the insects that live close to the road, apparently. I love this bird and hope we can stop cutting down dead trees and be aware of their attraction close to “road bugs”.
There is a couple Red-Headed woodpeckers that visit our yard every day….and like to sit on our clothes line pole to rest and to see where the flying prey are. A dear friend, Amy Kay is an avid birder and photographer, came by yesterday and took pictures of one having a great time in the back yard. I went to our neighbour and asked if he had any dead trees in the back of his property, if he would not cut them down for with the major storm blowing through here on May 24 weekend brought down some trees on his property. I told him about the Red-headed Woodpecker feeding in our yard…to which he replied….”Yeah they are nesting back here!” So my friend went over and found their nesting cavity way up about 70 feet in an old popular tree! We are so delighted to experience this wonderful bird. We are in Cloyne, Ontario.
I’m not sure why they would go ahead with this proposal when there are supposedly only 6000 of these birds left in North America. Ontario has only a small proportion of this number. Sadly we cannot rely on the Ontario government to give any support to the environment when it interferes with a business agenda. Money talks.
I would like to see Birds Canada give some love to these birds in the way of programs to help them out.
Male and female Red-headed Woodpeckers look the same, so you may have actually seen both sexes.
thank you for bringing attention to this magnificent bird
Last year there were three pairs nesting on a proposed development site in Fort Erie. We have an LPAT appeal based partly on the Environmental Impact Study which denied that Red-headed Woopeckers use the property. Help us to Save Waverly Woods. Sign the Petition
We have had several visits last year and again this year around this time from male red headed woodpeckers. We have not been able to spot any females. Lots of woodpeckers visit our feeders as our property is very treed, we live across from a bay and are surrounded by forest. We also fill our feeders with shelled peanuts that the woodpeckers really seem to like, summer and winter.
Great images and wonderful article, Maya. Keep up the good work.