The red-headed woodpecker is an unusual sight in Minnesota outside Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, where researchers have kept dozens of breeding pairs that return each spring.
In Minnesota, where the species’ population is projected to decline by 95 percent, researchers and land managers are hoping to better understand red-headed woodpecker activity and help restore populations.
“We’re just trying to create the right habitat,” said John Moriarty, senior manager of wildlife for the Three Rivers Park District.
While most Minnesota woodpeckers have red feathers on their heads, the red-headed woodpecker is unmistakable with an entirely red head and bold, black and white coloration on its body.
The Park District is also hoping new audio technology, which plays the sound of a bird’s voice, will help pull the woodpecker to the Three Rivers habitat.
Earlier this year audio systems were installed inside the Crow-Hasan Park Reserve in Rogers to play the sound of woodpeckers every morning and afternoon. While no red-headed woodpecker sightings were reported at Cro-Hasan during the experiment, the Park District became aware of at least one nesting pair at the Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage this year.
Land management efforts for Murphy-Hanrehan include maintaining open habitat and leaving some dead trees in the park, which is necessary for the woodpeckers to nest.
“If we build it, they will come,” Moriarty said. “Our hope is that if they are successful they will come back next year.”
Dr. Elena leads red-headed woodpecker research at the University of West Minnesota’s Cedar Creek and her work is helping land managers like Moriarty support the bird’s habitat.
West said the woodpecker’s habitat needs are much more complicated than the availability of dead trees to call home, although dead trees are essential.
Cedar Creek became a focus of red-headed woodpecker research more than a decade ago when a group of volunteers from Minneapolis’ Audubon chapter began monitoring the birds and established the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project.
The red-headed woodpecker population at Cedar Creek is relatively stable, with more than 100 adult birds being sighted at times.
The team studies the woodpecker’s nesting ecology, among other factors, in hopes of better understanding the bird’s behavior and survival needs.
the role of a woodpecker
In their habitat, such as the oak savanna, red-headed woodpeckers act as an “ecosystem engineer,” West explained. They create nesting cavities, which many other critters also prefer or need to survive.
“It turns out, there’s a lot of competition for these cavities once a red-headed one is used to it,” she said.
In Cedar Creek, researchers have also identified a large population of flying squirrels. Squirrels, known as secondary cavity nesters, regularly collide with red-headed woodpeckers in an attempt to overtake the cavities.
West and his team have recorded thousands of hours of video footage detailing these types of conversations.
Other technology, such as location trackers and audio recorders, has also been deployed in the field.
In upcoming research efforts, bio-sound monitoring devices will be placed at various sites in Minnesota in an effort to locate the red-headed woodpecker on the landscape.
Then algorithms are used to identify the sound of the bird.
West said they are hopeful that the Bio-Sound Monitoring Survey will help researchers better understand where red-headed woodpeckers are living so that land managers can help protect and support the species.
woodpecker cavity cam
Red-headed woodpecker research in Minnesota is also supported by volunteers.
West and her colleague, Dr. Caitlin Potter, run an online citizen science project where volunteers contribute to their nest cavity research.
Their project, called the Woodpecker Cavity Cam, is hosted on Zooniverse, a website run by the Citizen Science Alliance.
On their webpage, volunteers help classify the data by watching short clips from the team’s Nest cavity cameras at Cedar Creek.
A simple yes or no question, such as whether an animal is visible in a 10-second video clip, helps the team separate out the vast amount of data. No research experience or knowledge of the red-headed woodpecker is required.
So far, more than 4,000 volunteers have contributed to the Woodpecker Cavity Cam project with over 180,000 video classifications.