Olivet Nazarene University researchers are conducting a study on red-headed woodpeckers, and they hope to present their findings at the Illinois Academy of Sciences this spring and the Ecological Society of America in New Orleans this summer.
“Red-headed woodpeckers were once the most common woodpecker in the region,” said Derek Rosenberger, an assistant professor at the Bourbonnais-based university’s department of biological sciences. “However, some evidence indicates that they declined by nearly 90 percent in Illinois in the first half of the 1900s and then by a further 70 percent in the last 50 years.”
The decline coincided with a drop in the optimal habitat for red-headed woodpeckers, particularly oak savannas and grasslands, Rosenberger explained. “Indeed, less than 1 percent of oak savanna is left, making it a critically endangered ecosystem.”
There is evidence, however, that red-headed woodpecker numbers are stable in some pockets of oak savanna that remain, which should spur more conservation efforts for that type of habitat, Rosenberger said.
“This project was designed to investigate what factors are important in maintaining high populations of these birds,” he added. “If we can discover what factors make some sites better than others, then we can more successfully plan conservation initiatives.”
Rosenberger said the Olivet project also serves as an educational tool for students enrolled in the conservation biology lab he oversees. Kim Zralka, an undergraduate zoology major, conducted surveys and habitat assessments in summer 2017, and she will be doing so again this year as part of her honors thesis at the school. “She has grown tremendously as a researcher over the last couple years as we planned and implemented this project,” Rosenberger said.
The high quality ecosystems that are found in the Forest Preserve District are crucial to understanding the “rich ecological history of this region … ,” Rosenberger added. “Supporting research at these sites is critical in gaining an understanding of what we have, what acquisitions and management plans may have the greatest impact, and how we can be the best possible stewards in the future.”
Bat habitat studied for stressors