Red Headed Woodpecker: an Endangered Species That Needs a Strong Endangered Species Act by Dr. John Bacher

My wife swears she saw a couple of these beauties at our feeders in Midhurst last month.
April 25, 2019

Red Headed Woodpecker: an Endangered Species That Needs a Strong Endangered Species Act
Dr. John Bacher

My first experience with the Red Headed Woodpecker in the late 1980s at what is now the Chiefswood National Historic Site on the Six Nations Reserve was deeply moving. It took place on the grounds of the former estate of the pioneering conservationist and Mohawk Chief, George Johnson. With their beautiful plumes of red, white and black made luminous by the fading sunlight of the magic hour, a happy pair leaped up and down among the giant hickories, oaks and walnuts that grace Chiefswood’s grounds. The soft dying parts of the sentinels of Chiefswood provided the sacred sanctuary where the Red Headed Woodpeckers here can dig out the holes they need for breeding. Both dying and dead trees called snags also provide a rich food source of insects.


Red headed woodpecker. Photo by Randy Staples

My enchanted encounter in a magical place of great beauty was typical of the dramatic struggle for survival of the Red Headed Woodpecker over the past two centuries. Once abundant, although not at the spectacular way of the doomed Passenger Pigeon, it was devastated by the massive fire driven deforestation by farmers of the corrupt Gilded Age. Unlike the exterminated Passenger Pigeon which Johnsons’ Mohawks attempted to rescue, the Red Headed Woodpecker survived. The Red Headed woodpecker recovered as the forests came back through the conservation advocacy of pioneers like Johnson and his zealous Mohawk forest rangers. Their work is continued by Danny Beaton a Mohawk of the Turtle Clan.


Beaton recently sought to become the first status Indian to be a member of Ontario Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario. (COSSARO). The government agency is reverently known by scientists as the “God committee”. It is supposed to have an native elder versed in traditional wisdom of respect for the natural world, but none have been appointed.

By the 1950s, forest conservation policies in eastern North America had put the Red Headed Woodpecker on the road to recovery. In addition to a general recovery of forests these efforts protected old growth sanctuaries. These refuges are now the last bastions for the Red Headed Woodpecker in Canada. In southern Ontario these include the Point Pelee and St. Lawrence Islands national parks, Rondeau Provincial Park, Navy Island National Historic Park, the nearby Dufferin islands owned by the Niagara Parks Commission and the Long Point National Wildlife Refuge. The Red Headed Woodpecker also thrives in a chain of provincial parks and protected crown lands in Manitoba and Ontario close to the Lake of the Woods. One refuge for the bird which is now going through a status upgrade to hopefully become formally recognized as Endangered in Ontario, is the Ojibway community in Lake Simcoe known as Snake Island.

Since the 1970s in its former habitat in Ontario and Quebec there has been a devastating decrease in forest cover, especially in former old growth areas on private lands. This is part of an appalling situation that the more rapidly declining population in Canada has become a sink for the survival of the Red Headed Woodpecker as a species. This means that birds who fly over the border are less likely to survive to maturity and parent offspring than if they had stayed in the birthplace of endangered species legislation: the United States.

The most dramatic decline in Canada’s Red Headed Woodpecker population has come about in heavily deforested southern Quebec, where severity of forest loss is being demonstrated through massive flooding. For the past twenty years Quebec has ignored the obvious technique of protecting and trying to set the conditions for the eventual expansion of forests with old growth characteristics. Instead it has enlisted farmers in efforts to put holes in trees in hopes of attracting Red Headed Woodpeckers to nest in them, and deliberately killing trees and in the hopes that they will decay to create attractive conditions for the species.

Although this Quebec experiment has been going on for twenty years it has yet to attract a breeding pair. What has happened is a failed experiment, which should provide a cautionary example to government of Douglas Ford with its suggestions to have developers’ fund projects to create habitat for endangered species’ to compensate for authorized habitat destruction under Ontario’s lame Endangered Species’ Act. Ford’s “pay to slay” scheme may simply in reality create a lot of more dead forests without any benefit to rare species that in theory may benefit from such so called “mitigation” efforts.

One of the most tragic examples of the vanishing of the Red Headed woodpecker was took place in old growth forests from Burlington to Toronto near the shore of Lake Ontario in the late 1990s. One terribly vivid example of recent environmental degradation in southern Ontario was the rapid removal of a 400 acre forest in Burlington that had provided a buffer for the refinery. The refinery was carefully planned in the 1950s to accommodate the needs of industry and the environment. Its sale to developers in 1996 and subsequent rezoning came so quickly that lamentation rather than activism was the ineffectual response.

Intensive development also cut up forested estate lots which had once lined Burlington’s lakeshore. One of my aunts Margaret Anne Wall told me the tragic story of a situation of the disappearance of the last Red Headed Woodpecker in the Burlington in the late 1990s. She explained to me and my wife, Mary Lou and how, “The beautiful Red Headed Woodpecker’s calls were heard until the forest was destroyed. Now it is gone never to reappear.” The former oil refinery buffer forest eventually became the Red Headed Woodpecker subdivision. Its painted images were placed on signs used to sell lots on the lands from which the endangered species was displaced.

Another challenge to the survival of the Red Headed Woodpecker in Ontario is that even municipal parks departments are not respectful of its habitat needs. This proved to be the case in St. Catharines’ Malcomson Eco-Park. Here for the first several years of its life in the 1990s its persistence became its crown jewel of restoration success near the shores of Lake Ontario. In 2000 despite the protests of the Eco-Parks volunteers, such as Douglas Woodard and Mary Potter the city cut down snags where the Red Headed Woodpeckers nested. After this act of civic vandalism the Red Headed Woodpecker was never seen again in Niagara north of the Niagara Escarpment and near the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario.

The Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas which has been around since 1981 has provided tragic documentation to the Red Headed Woodpecker’s decline in south western Ontario. Breeding pairs were in 1981 in found most Atlas squares in rural south western Ontario. They vanished along with the forests that had built up during the peak of conservation efforts to protect and restore forests in the 1950s and 60s. In 1994 the Atlas showed 3,400 breeding pairs, but these numbers crashed to 900 by 2007. The vanishing of the Red Headed Woodpecker from Dufferin County from the massive forest destruction by the defeated mega quarry, is a vivid example of this disappearance. It shows how disrespect for forests in Canada triggers its demise. Although the quarry was defeated, the County has no tree bylaw allowing trees to be clear cut away on an owner’s whim.

Waverly Beach.

One of the few areas where the Red Headed Woodpecker thrives in Canada which is not a protected area or Indian Reservation is the threatened Waverly Beach forest in Fort Erie. Here the forest has giant old growth trees such as the rare Shumard Oak. The old growth forest which is breeding habitat for the Red Headed Woodpecker is threatened by an extension of Lakeshore Avenue for a proposed coffee shop. The road is planned to service adjacent development on younger forests, which could threaten the Red Headed Woodpecker with light pollution and preying from domestic pets. The development could also shrink the required forest habitat below the minimum area needed to support a nesting pair of Red Headed Woodpeckers.

Given its rarity it is astonishing that the Red Headed Woodpecker was not listed in Ontario as Endangered when province’s Endangered Species Act was proclaimed ten years ago. It is however, listed with this status federally. The upgrade may not come in time to save the species’ habitat at Waverly Beach. The process to save its Waverly Beach habitat may be slowed by a number of proposed changes by the government of Doug Ford to dilute the Endangered Species Act. One is a proposed twelve month delay for regulations to follow species upgrades. This could set back protection in time so it cannot be used in a Ontario Municipal Board hearing it is planned for May 2019. The hearing has been sparked by the appeal of a Fort Erie environmental activist, Marcie Jacklin.