Red-headed Woodpecker in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, October 2018, No 280


Red-headed Woodpeckers, including nesting pairs and family groups, were once seen regularly on the Carden Alvar. There has been a steady decline in observations. I saw one in Carden in 2017, but in 2018 there were no sightings there based on eBird maps. The Red-headed Woodpecker is now fast disappearing from Ontario and most of its range. In April 2018 it was listed as Endangered in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

CAUSES OF DECLINE: The Red-headed Woodpecker is not adapting to the human-made (anthropogenic) changes in the landscape of North America. One study found its reproductive success is below the minimum required to offset mortality. The decline is associated with reduced quality of the breeding habitat, particularly the loss of dead standing trees used for nesting, food storage and flycatching. Being a flycatching specialist, the Red-headed Woodpecker may be affected by declines in large flying insects needed to feed young. Another possible factor is fighting with European Starlings and Red-bellied Woodpeckers which usurp its nest sites, but a recent study found no support for this hypothesis. Long ago Arthur Cleveland Bent (1939) noted in his Life Histories of North American Birds that Red-headed Woodpeckers were often killed by vehicles. Lastly, a recent study in 2017 concluded that increased populations of Cooperís Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are driving the Red-headed Woodpecker decline by increased predation.

HABITAT: The Red-headed Woodpecker prefers open deciduous woodlands with some dead trees and little or no understory bordering fields. It often uses woodlot edges where it sallies out from dead branches to catch flying insects. Cardenís ranchlands with scattered trees are ideal habitat with dead elms and poplars favoured for nesting. Red-headed Woodpecker habitat is enhanced by cattle grazing and fire.

HABITS: The Red-headed Woodpecker is migratory arriving in May in Carden and departing by mid-October. For such a spectacular woodpecker, it is often inconspicuous and easily overlooked unless spotted in flight. It is the most expert and tireless flycatcher in the woodpecker family. This omnivorous woodpecker eats insects, acorns, beechnuts and berries, and is one of only four woodpecker species in the world that stores food. A few spend the winter in southern Ontario feeding on cached food or at bird feeders.

FUTURE: Sightings of Red-headed Woodpeckers on the Carden Alvar are now quite rare but not unexpected.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for proofing this note and Jean Iron for the photo.