TWEL Melissa Santiago Thesis

Conservation of red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) on midwestern golf courses: A case study in Ohio
 
Melissa J. Santiago, MS
Advisor: Amanda Rodewald
 
 
The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) has declined dramatically since the early 1900’s throughout its range (Peterson 1980, Robbins et al. 1987, Sauer et al. 2003), and both the National Audubon Society and Partners in Flight have listed the species as one of high conservation priority (Muehter 1998, Smith et al. 2000). These birds are strongly associated with oak-savanna ecosystems (Smith et al. 2000, Brawn 2001, Hunter et al. 2001), which are now largely absent in midwestern states. However, because golf courses possess some features characteristic of oak-savannas (e.g., widely spaced trees and open understory), they may provide habitat for red-headed woodpeckers. The primary goal of this project was to assess the suitability of midwestern golf courses in Ohio as breeding habitat for red-headed woodpeckers. Specific objectives were to: 1) identify habitat and landscape characteristics associated with the occurrence of red-headed woodpeckers on golf courses, 2) compare habitat structure of golf courses to oak-savannas and other open spaces used by red-headed woodpeckers, 3) assess nesting success of breeding woodpeckers both on and off golf courses, 4) survey for potential nest competitors and predators of red-headed woodpeckers, 5) characterize the foraging behavior of red-headed woodpeckers on golf courses and non-courses, 6) determine if behavior of breeding pairs differed between golf courses and non-courses, and 7) provide golf course managers with recommendations to maintain or create habitats for red-headed woodpeckers.
 
I censused for red-headed woodpeckers and measured habitat characteristics on 100 golf courses in central and northern Ohio from May-August 2002 and 2003. I also located 49 nests and measured surrounding habitat characteristics (i.e., nest patch) and monitored 16 of these nests to determine nesting success on golf courses. Red-headed woodpeckers were detected on 26% of golf courses and were positively associated with large (49 cm diameter at breast height) mast trees (e.g., Quercus spp.), snags ( ≥ 16 cm dbh and ≥ 2 m tall), and dead limbs (≥ 30 cm dbh) at both the golf course and nest patch scale. Sixty-seven percent of nests were located in dead limbs of living trees, suggesting that snags are not the only nesting substrates used by red-headed woodpeckers. Landscape context was important, with 33% of golf courses in rural areas having red-headed woodpeckers, versus only 16% of courses located in urban areas (i.e., within town or city limits). No significant associations were identified between the number of red-headed woodpeckers and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) or house sparrows (Passer domesticus) from the surveys. Twelve of 16 golf course nests (75%) monitored over two years successfully fledged young, and this success rate was comparable to birds nesting off courses (n=11, 73% success).
 
For comparisons of red-headed woodpecker nesting success, habitat, and behavior on golf courses versus non-courses, I compared 10 pairs on courses to 10 pairs on non-courses (i.e., remnant oak-savannas and open spaces). Pairs experienced similar rates of nesting success. Seventy percent of nests were successful (i.e., fledged one or more young) on golf courses and 80% of nests were successful on non-courses. Higher numbers of snags and dead limbs were available at non-course sites, but average dbh of trees on golf courses and non-courses was similar (ca. 45 cm). Oaks were the most common tree species found in the nest patch, both for golf courses (39%) and non-courses (44%). Foraging observations of adult individuals (n = 95) showed that red-headed woodpeckers frequently gleaned insects from the ground and especially on golf course turf (38%), which may make them vulnerable to pesticides used on golf courses. Otherwise, behavior and time budgets of red-headed woodpeckers on and off courses were comparable, with birds devoting most of their time to resting (ca. 40%). Active foraging accounted for approximately 15% of the observations. Results suggest that golf courses offer valuable habitat for breeding red-headed woodpeckers and have the potential to contribute to the conservation of this declining species. However, future research is needed to assess the potential for pesticide exposure, differences in productivity between red-headed woodpeckers breeding on golf courses and more natural habitats, and other possible fitness consequences of golf course management practices.