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Citizen science and nature’s solace

The redheads really showed us their charisma that morning. The parents sounded remarkably like tree frogs, “rattle-calling” as we crossed a beaver dam, approaching them. They hitched hurriedly up trunks, chortling “QUARR-QUARR!”

Redheaded woodpecker
Redheaded woodpecker

When the fledgling of a vanishing bird species appeared high in a maple this past July, I nearly whooped with joy. But the redheaded woodpecker clung to bark as if to fade from my presence, gray wings against a gray trunk, no scarlet due on its head for months. It peered down at me with such trepidation I figured it’d never seen a human before. I absorbed the fledgling’s silence into myself. I faded lower into the understory, and an adult in a cottonwood fed a second fledgling, and a nestling poked its head out of the nest cavity — a third chick about to come out.

Redheaded woodpeckers have declined 95% in Minnesota since 1970, the largest loss in any U.S. state or Canadian province, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. I’d been monitoring redhead nests for three years at Trempealeau National Refuge in Trempealeau, Wis., for the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project — a program of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, Minn., that coordinates volunteers and funds and collaborates with experts — conservationists hell-bent on doing everything possible to sustain the species.

I finally had my first fledglings to report to the Recovery Project. Two days later an old friend, a retired naturalist who’d been suffering weight loss and tiredness, confirmed them. The redheads really showed us their charisma that morning. The parents sounded remarkably like tree frogs, “rattle-calling” as we crossed a beaver dam, approaching them. They hitched hurriedly up trunks, chortling “QUARR-QUARR!” One fledgling raised a decayed old maple key in its bill, then held it with a “toe” against a trunk. It hammered the key with gusto, dropped it, let it fall and gawked mutely at a parent. The parents effectively flew sorties, snatching insects in midair, looping from trees like flycatchers.

“I’m satisfied with the day,” said my friend, not knowing his imminent diagnosis. Cancerous tumor on his pancreas, spread to his liver and small intestines. The news devastated me. But my friend’s favorite word regarding life is gratitude, and I felt grateful the species brought him joy — as it had my mother 42 years ago. Born of uncertain circumstances in Connecticut, Mom frequently feared that people viewed her as a bastard. But when she first met my new sweetheart, we drove to Trempealeau Refuge, and a redhead called as the ladies got out of the car, and we all felt the propitious bond, mutual love for nature’s boundless gifts.

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Once in my 20s I sat at a campsite to write my dad a Father’s Day poem, and a redhead interrupted, rattling and chortling squeakily from a tree beside me. A second flew in, raising its crest as if to launch head-feathers to Mars. The two zoomed off on a chase, bouncing like mad through the campground’s air. A third and fourth dive-bombed them, and the gang landed on another tree, fluffing at one another, popping in and out of a hole. They played “hide-and-seek,” hitching themselves around trunks, posturing at one another. I giggled uncontrollably, delighted by throaty rattles, shrill and toothy cries, bill-taps punctuated by cockeyed head-twists. The redheads expressed their urgencies regardless of human convention, releasing my father’s gift in me, his laughter.

Richie Swanson
Richie Swanson
Mom and Dad have passed, losses I expected as I grew older. But I’ve lived in a boathouse on the Mississippi River in Winona, Minn., since 1987, and I can’t reconcile the loss of birdlife during the timespan. Uncountable nighthawks, tree and other swallows, black terns and bats teemed above the river during summer dawns and twilights only 20 years ago. Now the river-sky here is silent, vacant, on summer evenings. Thunder-claps of diving-dipping nighthawks, the chitter of swallows bank-to-bank, cries of terns as sharp as their wings, furious whirring of bats — except for cliff swallows adapted to bridges, the dense congregations don’t happen around Winona anymore.

North America has lost 29% of its birds since 1970, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2019. The continent’s population has dropped by 2.9 billion adults. The absence would scour me empty if not for the likes of the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project. Cerulean warblers, great blue herons and American egrets have nested one to two miles from my bank in recent years. I no longer find those species breeding nearby. But science has enabled the successful return of bald eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans here.

The Recovery Project has supported redhead studies at Cedar Creek Reserve since 2006. Its lead researcher, Dr. Elena West of the University of Minnesota, and other experts explore how the species succeeds — and will create a blueprint for recovery, just as conservationists once created recovery plans for bald eagles (now abundant). It enables citizen scientists to contribute and expand local understanding of redheaded woodpeckers, to increase the chances that great-grandchildren will hear their rattle-calls, absorb into themselves the species’ vigorous determination and feel satisfied with their days in nature too.

Richie Swanson (richieswanson.com) is the Winona Bird Club’s president and volunteers for the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project (www.rhworesearch.org). He has written for Birder’s World, Bird Watcher’s Digest and other publications. Sunstone Press published his novel First Territory (Yakama War 1855-1856) in 2013.