Red-headed woodpeckers and Eastern whip-poor-wills facing habitat loss

Two Manitoba birds known for their striking plumage and distinctive calls are now considered at-risk species. The Manitoba Important Bird Areas Program and the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative have joined forces to protect the animals with the help of Marissa Berard, who will be giving a talk on both birds at an upcoming Westman Naturalists event.

Both the red-headed woodpecker and the eastern whip-poor-will breed within Manitoba Important Bird Areas (MIBA), which are located on public and private land. Many MIBAs have no formal protection.

Berard, the program coordinator for the MIBA Program and the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative, a volunteer-led initiative that looks to protect chimney swifts in Manitoba, will be giving her talk at the Brodie Building at Brandon University and online via Zoom on March 23 at 7 p.m.

Red-headed woodpeckers and Eastern whip-poor-wills are facing habitat loss and declining populations across Manitoba and throughout Canada, Berard said. Red-headed woodpeckers are mid-sized woodpeckers that are found in temperate areas in North America. Their breeding habitat is made up of the open country across southern Canada and the east-central United States. Distinctly tricoloured with black backs and tails, white bellies and rumps and red heads and necks, red-headed woodpeckers are called cavity nesters, because they make their homes in dead or dying standing trees.

“They will excavate holes in entries and nest in those, so they really need a specific type of habitat,” Berard said. “And they also need areas with not a lot of understory vegetation, so not a lot of … bushes or vegetation that’s closer to the ground.”

Areas where cattle graze around standing dead or dying trees are ideal for the birds, Berard said.

The Eastern whip-poor-will makes its home in wetlands because they rely on insects to survive. The medium-sized birds are members of the nightjar family. Adults have mottled plumage of grey, black and brown, with very short bills and black throats. They breed in deciduous or mixed woods across central and southeastern Canada and the eastern United States, and migrate to the southeastern United States and to eastern Mexico and Central America for the winter. They hunt at night, catching insects in flight, and normally sleep during the day. They nest on the ground, in shaded locations among dead leaves.

Two of the biggest factors in loss of habitat facing these birds, Berard said, is a loss of wetlands and the use of pesticide, which gets rid of insects the Eastern whip-poor-will feeds on.

“There’s sort of lots of different threats kind of coming together and acting together to make it really difficult for these species,” she said.

As cities expand and more forest gets cut down, even more habitat is lost.

“Any time forests are cut down, that has an impact,” Berard said. “Any activity where trees are getting cut down and pesticides are used … is causing harm to the species.”

The red-headed woodpecker and the Eastern whip-poor-will are important parts of the Manitoba ecosystem, and populations are monitored yearly by the MIBA program. Manitoba is currently home to 36 Important Bird Areas that cover more than 15,680 square kilometres. In the southwest corner of the province, mixed-grass prairie is of particular importance, though each area has its own significance to birds and biodiversity.

“Every species has its important role within that ecosystem, and within that bigger picture,” Berard said. “Whip-poor-wills, for example … are aerial insectivores. They help to … control insect populations.”

Woodpeckers play an important role in forest ecosystems, excavating next cavities and making holes in trees, creating habitat for other species who nest there but can’t necessarily build the nests themselves, like flying squirrels.

“They’re creating really, really important habitats for a bunch of other species just by being there,” Berard said. “Because they will eat different nuts and seeds, they’re spreading that, they’re helping plants disperse.”

In 2021, the Important Bird Areas Caretaker volunteer program was launched by Nature Manitoba, a not-for-profit organization that works to promote an appreciation and understanding of nature and to preserve it. The program’s goal is to recruit volunteer stewards for all of Manitoba’s 38 Important Bird Areas.

But even people who aren’t ready to become stewards through the program can play a part in protecting habitats that are important to birds, Berard said. Landowners who have a potential habitat for red-headed woodpeckers or Eastern whip-poor-wills don’t need to have confirmed sightings of either bird on their property to get involved, either.

“If you have areas with some standing dead trees or some forest, maybe with not a lot of understory, if you have a mowed lawn or some grazing happening … we would love to hear from you,” she said. “We’re just asking you, to the best of your ability, to maintain the habitat that you have.”

In return, landowners can receive a gate sign designating them as conservation champions.

For more information, visit

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun