White-backed woodpecker in the wild

There is only one place in the world where the white-backed woodpecker breeds in captivity – here at Nordens Ark. It took a few years before we learned how to make the birds feel at home here, but now it works well. Young woodpeckers from Nordens Ark are now being released into the wild to help save the species from extinction in Sweden. 

At the start of last century, white-backed woodpeckers could be found in many parts of Sweden. But by 20 years ago there were only around 20 pairs, and their numbers have continued to fall. In recent years there have been at most a few breeding pairs in the country. According to the Swedish Red List, the white-backed woodpecker is critically endangered. The species is not endangered globally. In the Baltic countries and Poland there are estimated to be 3,700 pairs.

The white-backed woodpecker is reliant on deciduous woodland with lots of old, decaying trees that are home to plenty of insects. Forest of this type has become increasingly rare as a result of modern forestry methods. There are at least 200 threatened species of plants and animals that are dependent on the same type of forest environment as the white-backed woodpecker. This woodpecker can therefore be seen as a symbol for a whole group of species that rely on old deciduous woodland. Species like this are knows as umbrella species. By saving one umbrella species we can beneÿt many other species at the same time. 

In 1990 the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation set up a project to save the white-backed woodpecker in Sweden. One part of this project involves building up the extremely vulnerable Swedish population by reintroducing young birds. Initially, chicks were taken from nests in Norway and Latvia. They were reared at Nordens Ark and released when they were large enough to fend for themselves. Just over 10 years ago we decided to take a different approach and try to breed white-backed woodpeckers by getting the birds to nest in captivity. No one had ever tried this before. A well-equipped new breeding facility for white-backed woodpeckers was built at Nordens Ark in 2003. It consisted of 11 aviaries, built next to each other in a long row. The breeding stock was moved in, but the birds showed no signs of nesting. Were the enclosures too small? And why was it that woodpeckers that were kept by themselves, in a separate enclosure in the park, succeeded in breeding?

The keepers at Nordens Arks noticed that the birds in the "terrace aviary" were very much influenced by each other; they all did the same things at the same time. So they decided to move the pairs out to enclosures in different parts of the park. Things have gone better since then. Each year a number of young woodpeckers leave Nordens Ark for a life in the wild.

Between 2008 and 2011 a total of 35 young, white-backed woodpeckers from Nordens Ark have been released into nature. The most important thing for white-backed woodpeckers seems to be to make sure they are not disturbed – by other woodpeckers. The fact that tens of thousands of visitors to Nordens Ark walk by, on the other side of the mesh, does not seem to bother them however.

Nordens Ark’s work with the white-backed woodpecker is supported by the Swedish Postcode Lottery and the Segré Foundation.