After a long, snowy and bitterly cold winter, Spring has arrived. The snow is gone, the daylight is longer, the temperature is going up, the first Spring flowers are out, migrants are returning, and the birds are singing – indeed Spring has sprung; a good time to recall a few facts about our homeland. Canada, the second-largest country on the planet, contains 20% of the world’s fresh water, 25% of the planet’s wetlands, and 20% of the world’s remaining wilderness. It is also home for many species of animals, including a large variety of birds.

Birds are wonderful – they are intelligent, diverse, full of personality, and they exhibit amazing behaviours. Among our feathered friends, woodpeckers are especially impressive. Nobody knows that better than Swiss-born avian conservation biologist and ornithologist Dr. Barbara Frei, who completed her PhD on Red-headed Woodpeckers and their conservation at McGill University in Montreal. She has published a summary of her findings in Natural History magazine. Excerpts from her thesis were posted online by Christopher Buddle in Expiscor, with permission. From this, here are some things you probably never knew about these wonderful birds:

Like all woodpeckers, along with a good number of other birds, Red-headed Woodpeckers lay their eggs and raise their young in a cavity. Red-heads typically excavate a fresh hole each year, a feat that takes two to three weeks, or more. This seemingly simplistic behaviour is a critical piece of the forest ecosystem, because the dead branches and snags that are weakened by such cavities may fall sooner to the forest floor, becoming available for a myriad of uses by other creatures.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered to be ‘weak’ excavators, and as such they need softer dead wood to excavate. They may often make use of a natural crack to start the excavation, and have an uncanny ability to know just where pockets of rot and fungus are within the tree, excavating at these deteriorated locations. The problem with relying on softer, older, and ‘deader’ wood is that it is around for only a relatively short time and is often removed by humans for safety or aesthetic reason before it can get to the right stage of decay for Red-heads. But Red-headed Woodpeckers have adapted to make the most of this fleeting resource.

The males and females of Red-headed Woodpeckers look exactly the same. Their migration is erratic, hard to predict, and still not fully understood. In the western and northern part of their range, including Canada, the Red-heads are present only for the breeding period (May-August) and then leave for the non-breeding period. In other, more southerly parts of the range, you can see Red-headed Woodpeckers year round.

For many reasons, Red-headed Woodpeckers are unique among most woodpeckers in North America.  One prominent reason is what they eat and how they catch their food. Red-heads are considerably more omnivorous than most woodpeckers, eating a large variety of food from invertebrates to fruits, nuts, small rodents, and even the eggs of other birds. Unlike most other woodpeckers that peck at trees for wood-boring insects, Red-headed Woodpeckers take to the sky in a graceful flight, hunting aerial insects on the wing, or ‘stoop’ suddenly to the ground to grab an earthworm or chase a ground beetle.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are unique in many other ways, as well. The species is one of only four woodpecker species (out of 198) that commonly stores food in a cache to consume it later. Although this is fairly common behaviour in mammals, few birds store food. And Red-heads are one of only two species of woodpeckers that cover up the food they store. They have been known to even store live insect prey, wedging grasshoppers or other insects into cracks and crevices of their wooden cache – often a dead snag or branch close to the nest tree – doing so with such delicacy that their victim remains alive but unable to free itself.

Red-headed Woodpeckers will fight mightily for their rights to a territory or nest cavity. Their pugnacious character may be important to their survival, as several other woodpeckers species, as well as the non-native European Starling, may well be vying for the dead wood or cavities that Red-heads depend on for nesting.

The original habitats of Red-headed Woodpeckers – natural openings and edges of the vast deciduous forests and tree-covered savannas – have almost entirely changed or disappeared. So the species has had to adapt and move into human-regulated environments in order to survive. They are caught in an ecological trap: they are ‘choosing’ the wrong habitats but don’t seem to realize their ‘wrong’ choice. In short, they are good birds making bad choices. In recent years, Red-headed Woodpeckers have steadily declined, mostly because of habitat loss and degradation, loss of dead wood, interspecific competition with other species, food limitations, and climate change. Please leave dead wood standing because it is full of life!

To close off, here are some good news and a quick look at some new books.

The Ontario town of Richmond Hill has banned the sale of live animals. 

The Ontario provincial government plans to ban buying sea animals for entertainment places. 

The Barnum & Bailey circus will stop using elephants in circus acts. 

In Louisiana there is a large, well equipped and competently staffed place where retired research chimpanzees can live out their remaining years. 

Ontario Nature and Lakehead University have partnered to offer a Master Naturalist program – the first of its kind in Canada – to help build field naturalist skills and engage participants in natural history and environmental stewardship projects. 

Innovation in bird migration tracking devices is giving scientists new views of the movement of songbirds and bats. 

An autumn bat survey found 22 bats hibernating in caves in New Brunswick, down slightly from 24 last winter. It is really starting to look like the decline is levelling off. Similar patterns have been seen in Vermont and New York, where white-nose syndrome has been present the longest. Both of these states, and New Brunswick, have lost more than 96% of their over-wintering bat populations, but it is starting to look like some individuals can survive the disease over multiple years. 

Three bat species have now been listed as endangered under the Species At Risk Act (SARA) in Canada. This means that a recovery strategy will be developed, bats on federal lands are protected, and funding will be made available for research on how to mitigate bat mortality, both from the white-nose disease and other factors. 

Books:

Among fascinating new hardcover books from Firefly (www.fireflybooks.com) are The World of Birds by Jonathan Elphick, 900 photos, $75; Hummingbirds by Ron Orenstein, 200 pictures, $35; In Search of Lost Frogs by Robin Moore, 400 photographs, $35; and Wildlife Photographer of the Year, from the BBC Natural History contest, $49.95.

Special days in this season:

March 22: World Water Day; March 28: Earth Hour; April 5-11: National Wildlife Week; April 10 – May 31: “Walk for Wildlife” initiative (Canadian Wildlife Federation); April 22: Earth Day; May 9: International Migratory Bird Day; May 22: International Day of Biodiversity; and June 8-14: Rivers to Oceans Week.

Nature highlights of Spring: In early March, Lynx families are breaking up as last year’s kittens are striking out on their own and mature females prepare for the upcoming breeding season. In mid-March, birthing season is underway for Red Foxes. Although males are typically barred from the vixen’s dens, they will hunt for their new families. By late March, skunks have left their winter dens and are fully active – and ready to spray. In early April, the first of this year’s new Grey Jays are beginning to hatch. The young birds will leave the nest after about three weeks. By mid-April, Polar Bears – especially females with cubs – are on the hunt for newborn seals. The bears mainly eat the seals’ fat and skin, leaving the meat for scavengers. In late April, Grizzlies are leaving their winter dens with their den-born young. Grizzly bears have a low reproductive rate; females breed only every three or four years. In late May or early June, Common Loons collect plant material to build their nests close to a river bank or lakeshore.   S.G.

Sources:  Expiscor, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Nature Canada, Ontario Nature and personal field notes.