White-backed woodpecker conservation

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopus leucotos is one of Sweden's most endangered birds. It is listed as Critical Endangered (CR) on the Swedish Red List and has been since the 1970s. This means that the species faces a high risk of extinction in wild in Sweden. Nordens Ark works with the conservation of the White-backed Woodpecker and collaborates with several other stakeholders in Project White-backed Woodpecker. 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.

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 back to the wild. In 1995 Nordens Ark and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation started a collaboration to breed and release white-backed woodpeckers. Since 2016, Skansen and Järvzoo are also part of this collaboration. 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. After a few years, Nordens Ark decided to try to breed the white-backed woodpeckers in captivity. Something that as far as we know had never been tried before. Since then, over 100 white-backed woodpeckers have been bred at Nordens Ark and released to suitable habitat in the wild.

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 breeding facility 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 separate enclosures in different parts of the park. Breeding results have gone better since then. 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 now have nine independent aviaries were two of which visitors can see in the park. Each year a number of young woodpeckers leave Nordens Ark for a life in the wild.

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 benefit many other species at the same time.

In collaboration with

Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Skansen, Järvzoo and Swedish Postcode Lottery.