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A red-headed woodpecker hovers at the entrance to its nest hole.
A red-headed woodpecker approaches its nest cavity. Image: Siah St. Clair

The feisty red-headed woodpecker has been declining in many parts of the country, but not at the U of M’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, which boasts lots of savanna and the largest known population of the birds in Minnesota. 

Postdoc Elena West studies these woodpeckers, noting what features of their environment make good habitat for them—and other species. She leads a team of volunteers, land managers, and community scientists from a range of disciplines who study them. 

West is a researcher with the Minnesota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Cedar Creek is part of the U of M College of Biological Sciences.

No bird brains here

To study the woodpeckers’ habits, West attaches a tiny tracking device to a bird’s leg. But first she catches them in a wire box trap baited with peanuts. The box door shuts when a bird steps on a treadle at the back of the box. Sound easy? Not if you’ve ever tried to outfox a red-headed woodpecker.

“These birds are very smart, and sometimes they are on to our tactics and it's much harder to capture them,” West notes. “If we catch a blue jay first, there's no way we'll catch a woodpecker—they know what we're up to at that point.”

Two red headed woodpeckers on a tree

Besides their taste for peanuts, red-headed woodpeckers are expert at catching insects. West has seen them pluck cicadas from mid-air and stash them—still alive and kicking—under tree bark. 

Bold and secretive

Red-headed woodpeckers perform impressive aerial acrobatics and aren’t shy about competing with bats, squirrels, tree frogs, mice, and other birds for nesting sites in tree cavities. 

“Woodpeckers are bold and boisterous in defending their nest cavities and attracting mates and, at the same time, secretive about their nesting and roosting habits inside cavities,” West says. “And there’s still a great deal we don’t understand about the role of drumming as a form of communication.

“We hear birds lightly tapping on trees all the time, and there's some evidence that pairs do this to select nest trees, and/or to communicate about being ready for a shift change when they're on brood duty, [as] males and females share in incubation of eggs and nestling care duties.”

A wider scope

West and her colleagues have installed a series of trail cameras near red-headed woodpecker cavities to capture the behaviors and interactions of the animals that use these cavities. 

Red headed woodpecker and bluejay

“We’re launching the project through Zooniverse, an online platform where volunteers come together to assist researchers like me in classifying images or videos to answer scientific questions,” she says. “It's been really rewarding to talk to people from around the world who are participating in our project this way.”

Not to mention being able to hold a wild bird and know she’s helping it.

“It is thrilling to get to see these birds up close and personal,” West says. “Being able to see small differences in wing or tail feather patterns or colors while birds are in the hand always sparks my curiosity, and that never gets old.”

Read more about West and woodpeckers.