Can Golf Courses Save The Red-Headed Woodpecker?

With its spectacular full head of crimson red, this particular woodpecker is literally losing ground. It is losing its specialized habitat and therefore decreasing its numbers, which is worrisome to wildlife biologists and bird watchers.

Woodpeckers in general are arguably the most important bird in the woods because their hole-making ability creates a habitat for so many other species, including screech owls, chickadees, woodchucks and squirrels.

The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) was once among the most common birds that bred in the Midwest and eastern North America. It lived in oak savannas, near farmlands and other open habitats with large trees. Development spurred by population growth has now turned much of the landscape into shopping malls and cul-de-sacs. This urbanization has eliminated the kind of habitat in which these beautiful birds thrive.

Help From An Unlikely Source

Golf courses used to be golf “curses” to wildlife lovers like me. Their well-manicured landscapes were havens to those who longed for the kind of birdie which would make fellow golf buddies jealous. They were not perceived as places to harbor the feathered kinds of birdies that I love to add to my list every year. Fast forward to today, when the rising population pressure is so high that land is in great demand to serve people’s needs. We are currently in a situation where golf courses are landscapes that may indeed serve wildlife needs, particularly the red-headed woodpecker.

Courses in and around cities have become rare landscapes in seas of human density. They typically are places of low human density, and are bordered by water and woodlands. Research is now being conducted to see if they are able to support this special species. Researchers at The Ohio State University randomly selected 100 golf courses in northern and central Ohio in 2002-2003 to evaluate the birds’ breeding success.*

A Real Find

Researchers discovered that red-headed woodpeckers were found on 26 percent of the courses, and that they preferred to live in large-diameter trees of hardwood types like oak, hickory and beech. The researchers monitored 16 nests on those courses and found that 75 percent of the nests successfully fledged young. This compares favorably to the 80 percent success rate of sites in non-golf course habitats. These findings suggest that golf courses, especially those with mature trees, have the potential to play an important role in red-headed woodpecker conservation.

Worth The Fight

The project continues. Researchers in Minnesota are trying to determine the specific nesting needs of these fussy woodpeckers. I am excited that in my role as a steward for the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary program for golf courses, I can stay on top of this important research and help relate the findings to course superintendents.

The potential for golf courses saving the red-headed woodpecker is very real. It will take a concerted effort of commitment and cooperation among researchers and course superintendents to keep this species among those we will still be able to see in the outdoors. It will be definitely be worth the effort.

* Research data reported by Amanda D. Rodewald, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of

Wildlife Ecology, School of Natural Resources, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Paul G. Rodewald, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology, School of Natural Resources, The

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; and Melissa J. Santiago, Graduate Associate, School of NaturalResources, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (from Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online, Volume 3, Number 15 August 1, 2004).

Dr. Karen I. Shragg is Director of the Wood Lake Nature Center for the City of Richfield, Minn. She can be reached via e-mail at