It’s an early May morning, and I’m gridding a newly “restored” oak savanna looking for garlic mustard and other nasty foreign herbaceous invaders. Many of the spring migrant birds have returned, and I’m very much enjoying the songs of the eastern meadowlarks, field sparrows, and rose breasted grosbeaks as I scan the ground floor. We have spent a lot of time in this woodlot the last couple of winters removing the dense tangle of non-native invasive shrubs and trees in a hard fought attempt to bring back the structure of this long ago lost oak savanna. And while the open tree structure is now apparent and some signs of oak tree recovery are appearing, it will take many more years before the ground layer recovers.
A shrill charr-charr-charr breaks through the morning tranquility and deafens the melodious calls of the other birds. The sound moves me deeply. I know immediately what it means. The red-headed woodpecker has returned! My eyes look up and towards a dead elm tree snag. I see four redheads, presumably two pairs, fighting it out over breeding territory. It looks like we are well on our way in satisfying the landowner’s goal of providing red-headed woodpecker habitat!
For breeding, red-headed woodpeckers require an open tree canopy habitat with little understory shrubs, and a continuous ground cover of grass, sedges and flowers. They nest in cavities in dead standing snags or dead limbs on live trees. They act a lot like flycatchers by flying out from a perch location, snatching an insect in midair, and then flying back to the perch location. They also gather, and cache, mast such as acorns in great quantity.
In Wisconsin, it’s suspected that the once common red-headed woodpecker is now in serious decline because of the loss of the oak savanna and open oak woodland communities. The absence of ecological processes such as fire and grazing, combined with invasive species, has allowed these oak communities to degrade into heavily wooded, closed-canopy forest. Red-headed woodpeckers declined by more than 2% per year from 1966 to 2014, resulting in a cumulative decline of 70%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
The charr-charr-charr continues as the birds chase each other throughout the woodlot. They are creating so much commotion and noise that I find myself longing for solitude again. Redheaded woodpeckers are fierce competitors and defenders of home territory; analogous to Green Bay Packers fans! Based on my observations, they are the only woodpecker that is consistently successful in outcompeting the fierce non-native European starling for nesting cavities.
I’m now on the far corner of the woodlot and see two half-a-shirt (nickname for red-headed woodpecker) birds land twenty feet above me in an oak tree. I hear calls still coming from the dead elm tree snag location. Perhaps victory calls? Are the two birds above me the losers? The two birds stare at me, and I can see their black eyes. I know it’s not logical, but I immediately wonder if the birds are asking “Why didn’t you created enough habitat for us?” I find myself thinking of excuses to justify why I only got so much oak savanna restored; too much snow, budget, old age!
The birds fly off. I plod on.