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.
Reasons for Decline
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.
Wanted Dead or Alive
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.
Part of a Bigger Story
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.
Starting at Ontario Nature as a Communications intern for ON Magazine, Maya is a lifelong naturalist and birder. She is now the Education Coordinator and is responsible for organizing and supporting the Nature Guardians Youth Programs. Maya holds a B.A. in Media, Information and Technoculture from Western University and is an environmental writer, photographer, and educator who is driven by her passion for biodiversity conservation. You can find her skiing, cycling, planning her next backcountry canoe trip, or posting on her nature blog.