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Photo of red-headed woodpeck on a tree trunk.

Will Red-Heads Return?

A determined band of birders is working to ensure more habitat for red-headed woodpeckers.

By Chet Meyers

It was a delightfully warm day, and we were on a quest. My good friend Keith Olstad and I were birding at the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near East Bethel. We were searching for a species increasingly difficult to find in Minnesota: the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). I usually find one or two of these beauties each year during about 150 days birding across the state. Just the previous week, birding guru Bob Janssen had found six red-heads at the reserve.

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See the red-headed woodpeckers of Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

"Keith, over here quick!"

"I'm already looking at a pair," he replied. "There goes another one!"

The red-headed woodpeckers were shuttling back and forth from their food source, storing acorns for the coming winter. They were loudly calling queerp, queerp and apparently unperturbed by our presence. During the next two hours, we saw 22 different red-headed woodpeckers in a 200-acre oak savanna, more than I had seen during my last nine years of birding.

The reserve is a rare gem, one of the few places in Minnesota that supports a large population of red-headed woodpeckers. Sadly, this bird is increasingly absent in the rest of the state. The Department of Natural Resources lists it as a species in greatest conservation need. The National Audubon Society reports red-headed woodpecker populations have declined by more than 50 percent across their range in the upper Midwest since 1966. Nevertheless, the situation could improve for red-headed woodpeckers across central and southern Minnesota as a band of birders is working to ensure more habitat complexes like Cedar Creek.

Changing Times

English naturalist and painter Mark Catesby reported that red-headed woodpeckers were among the most common birds he observed in early colonial America. Since then, this species has suffered three serious modern setbacks: the advent of the automobile, sprawling urban development, and intensive agricultural practices. Red-headed woodpeckers have a habit of sitting on telephone poles and flying low across the road to pick up grasshoppers, making the birds susceptible to collisions with cars. As the number of country roads increased, along with the number and speed of cars, many more woodpeckers fell victim.

Habitat loss from agricultural and suburban development has inflicted even greater damage on red-headed woodpecker populations. Intensive agricultural practices that cleared and tilled oak savanna were particularly devastating.

Red-headed woodpeckers are habitat specialists, which means they are selective about their surroundings. In Minnesota they prefer oak savanna, open grasslands, or pastures interspersed with small clusters of large living and dead trees. During summer they typically perch high up in a dead tree and swoop down to grab a crunchy meal of insects from the grassy understory.

According to DNR botanist Welby Smith, oak savanna is now one of the rarest ecosystems in Minnesota. Historically, wildfires kept oak savannas open. The few oak savannas that still exist are best maintained with prescribed burns.

Habitat Study

In 2007 the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, under the leadership of conservation chair Jerry Bahls, initiated a project called Red-Headed Woodpecker Recovery, aimed at reversing red-headed woodpecker decline in the state. As relative newcomers to the study of woodpeckers, the group sought the advice of experts. A tip from birding writer Jim Williams led them to wildlife biologist Rich King, who conducted a habitat study at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in west-central Wisconsin.

King helped re-store oak savanna at Necedah by selectively cutting oaks from 2,000 acres of land and leaving open fields and clusters of living and dead oak. Red-headed woodpeckers had been sparsely present in the area before King began his savanna-restoration work. But three years later, the savanna supported more than 70 nesting pairs of red-heads. King attributes the success to the availability of dead trees, a healthy acorn crop, and frequent burns to keep the savannas open.

Like Necedah, the Cedar Creek reserve contains oak savanna maintained with the aid of frequent burns. About 20 percent of the 5,400-acre reserve is oak savanna, which may be why Cedar Creek hosts the largest remaining cluster of red-headed woodpeckers in Minnesota. For the past two years, the Red-Headed Woodpecker Recovery group has been studying the nesting habitat at Cedar Creek, through a cooperative effort with the reserve and the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program.

In 2008, volunteers searched for nesting red-headed woodpeckers in mid-June, when parents were feeding newly hatched young. The nest holes were relatively easy to find, as woodpecker parents were constantly flying to and from the nest trees and calling to each other. Seven teams of two volunteers discovered 18 nesting pairs during their June surveys. After identifying the nest trees, the volunteers steered clear of the research area until the young had successfully fledged.

Later in the summer, DNR wildlife specialist Liz Harper and other DNR Nongame Wildlife staff collected data on the nest trees -- tree species, status (living or dead), height and diameter of tree, cavity location, and surrounding habitat. The staff marked each nest tree with a metal identification tag and used GPS to pinpoint and record tree location.

The data suggest that clusters of large living and dead oak trees, surrounded by open understory, were important to woodpecker nesting. Eleven of the 18 nest holes were found in dead trees or dead limbs of living trees. All nests were in savanna with bur, northern pin, or northern red oaks. These data will help the Audubon recovery group recommend improved ?management practices for landowners to preserve red-headed woodpecker habitat.

In addition to nest holes, the woodpeckers at Cedar Creek excavated cavities for roosting at night and for storing food. Once the bounty of spring and summer insects dies off, woodpeckers rely primarily on acorns. Acorn crops are cyclical. During a good acorn year, some red-headed woodpeckers will overwinter at Cedar Creek. The 2007 Christmas Bird Count found 29 birds staying the winter. The 2008 count revealed that fewer than 10 birds overwintered, a possible sign of a poor acorn crop.

A small number of red-headed woodpeckers overwinter in Minnesota, primarily in the southeastern region of the state. Most move southward in the fall to Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, or until they find a place with acorns or beechnuts.

Habitat Alternatives

Although healthy oak savanna is scarce in Minnesota, other habitat options exist. Open, human-altered habitats with scattered trees or woodlots, such as rural farmsteads, golf courses, and cemeteries, can provide limited habitat for red-headed woodpeckers. For example, Ruttger's Bay Lake golf course near Brainerd has a small group of red-headed woodpeckers.

The project is soliciting help from Minnesotans to report the whereabouts of red-headed woodpecker clusters on public or private land. While many scattered single pairs of birds occur, especially in the southwestern corner of the state, very few places in Minnesota have good habitat to support a cluster of two or more nesting pairs within a quarter-mile radius. Once a concentration of red-headed woodpeckers has been found, Audubon volunteers will work with private landowners and public land managers to provide information on how to maintain and enhance this valuable habitat.

This spring, volunteers will return to Cedar Creek. They are excited about the prospect of finding additional nesting pairs. They also want to see if woodpeckers will use some of the same cavities they used in 2008. These citizen scientists hope their research findings will encourage others to join in preserving and establishing habitat so everyone can enjoy seeing these red, white, and black bundles of energy hurtling through our countryside again.

Only a portion of Cedar Creek reserve is open to the public, but guided tours are available. Call 763-434-5131 or visit Cedar Creek's Web site.

Report red-head sightings

Attention golf-course birders: Red-Headed Woodpecker Recovery needs your help locating clusters of red-headed woodpeckers that may be using a golf course as habitat. Send an e-mail with the golf course name, its county, and the nearest city or town to Mary Miller, woodpecker recovery team volunteer, at

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