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Researchers study red-headed woodpeckers to solve mysteries of charismatic, declining species

The red-headed woodpecker’s feisty, loud personality fits the reputation of crimson-maned creatures, but the student researcher gently holding the bird bucked the trend.

University of Toledo graduate student Kyle Pagel was calm, steady and methodical as he banded the woodpecker’s legs with tiny, colorful identifying rings and looped a miniature backpack armed with a light-level geolocator and pinpoint-GPS around its legs.

UT graduate student Kyle Pagel held a red-headed woodpecker at Oak Openings Metropark in Swanton, Ohio. He is helping to conduct research on the bird to discover migration routes and why the species is in decline.

“The woodpecker is wearing it like a climbing harness,” said Pagel, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sciences at UT. “The backpack is so thin and light that it doesn’t inhibit flight or movement.”

The bird that flies freely once again from tree to tree isn’t the scarlet-mohawked woodpecker regularly spotted in backyards. The red-headed woodpecker is about the size of a robin or 10 times larger than a warbler.

This 70-gram, boldly patterned “flying checkerboard” is the seventh bird of its kind in a week that the UT team has examined at Oak Openings Metropark, taken a blood sample from, and outfitted with tracking technology to identify migration routes.

A photographer with the media took a photo of a red-headed woodpecker held by UT graduate student Kyle Pagel at Oak Openings Metropark.

“This is such as photogenic, popular species, it’s surprising how little is known about them,” Pagel said. “It’s fascinating to work with such a charismatic bird.”

Pagel, along with Dr. Henry Streby, UT assistant professor of environmental sciences and ornithologist, launched a study this month of red-headed woodpeckers that could last up to 10 years and solve many mysteries about the species.

For the next several weeks, the birding team’s office will be located throughout the Oak Openings region, including sites along Girdham Road and Jeffers Road at Oak Openings Metropark in Swanton, Ohio. They expect this year to put tracking technology on 20 adult red-headed woodpeckers in Ohio and 20 in Minnesota, and on another 25 juveniles in each of those states.

At Oak Openings Metropark, Dr. Henry Streby set up a mist net used to gently collect red-headed woodpeckers so more can be learned about the vanishing species.

“They’re in extreme decline, especially in the Midwest and Great Lakes area, maybe because of habitat loss and changes in their food supply,” Streby said. “We’re lucky to have Oak Openings just west of Toledo because it’s a place where red-headed woodpeckers seem to be doing relatively well. We want to figure out what’s working here and see if we can offer recommendations for habitat management elsewhere.”

Every morning the team sets up mist nets and uses recorded calls, drums and decoy birds to attract the woodpeckers.

Researchers are using blood samples to analyze DNA and hormones, as well as measure stress, immune system condition and aging.

The miniature backpack weighs about two grams and uses a light-level geolocator to gather data about when the birds go in and out of tree cavities each day. Pinpoint GPS, like on a cell phone, will tell the researchers where the birds traveled.

“Red-headed woodpeckers are inconsistent,” Streby said. “Some years they migrate for the winter, some years they don’t. We want to know why. We also want to know where they go when they’re not here on their breeding grounds. It could only be as far south as Kentucky or Tennessee. That is what we will learn for the first time when we recover the backpacks from the birds.”

Food availability, specifically acorns, is one of the factors being observed at Oak Openings this season, as well as reproductive success and genetics.

“We’re studying all of this without knowing whether these woodpeckers are going to leave or not,” Streby said. “It’ll take several breeding seasons to be able to analyze their habits and help us know what needs to be done to conserve the species, especially in places where the populations are shrinking.”

Streby also has been studying golden-winged warblers for five years using light-level geolocators that weigh less than half a paper clip to track migration patterns. The songbirds, which are about the size of a ping-pong ball, travel thousands of miles once they leave their spring and summer nesting grounds.