New York State has identified almost 400 species of wildlife who are in grave danger of disappearing from our waterways, lands and sky. Could I have stumbled across one of them in the middle of New York City the other day?

I live close to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and walk through the park several times a week. A few days ago, I was on a snowy road in a quiet part of the park. It was a bitterly cold, but sunny, day.

Echoing through the trees, came the sound of “tap, tap, tap.” It almost sounded like a dull hammer hitting wood. And then it occurred to me, “maybe that’s a woodpecker!”

I searched for the sound, and looking up, saw a greyish, medium-sized bird, with a brilliant red head. He was really handsome, and the deep red color of his head stood out amongst the snow covered trees.

Red-headed woodpecker. Credit: Jay Paredes

I only caught a fleeting glimpse of this red-headed bird. There are a couple species of woodpecker that look quite similar, but if what I saw was an actual red-headed woodpecker- that bird may not be here much longer.

The red-headed woodpecker is one of 372 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, according to the State of New York. Half of this group of 372, including the woodpecker, have been designated “high priority for conservation action in the near term.”

Not Your Average Woodpecker

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, red-headed woodpeckers are not your average woodpecker: “they’re adept at catching insects in the air,” says the Lab’s on-line bird guide, and “they eat lots of acorns and beech nuts, often hiding away extra food in tree crevices for later.”

But the woodpecker is struggling to hold its ground. “This magnificent species has declined severely in the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to its food supply,” says Cornell.

At Risk: A Diversity of Species

The state is currently finalizing its list of species who are in greatest need of conservation action. A public comment period on the list has been extended until March 9th.

There is an incredible variety of wildlife within the almost 200 species targeted as “high priority” on the state’s list. There are many species of birds, such as the Eastern Meadowlark and the Seaside Sparrow.

“The sweet, lazy whistles of Eastern Meadowlarks waft over summer grasslands and farms in eastern North America. The birds themselves sing from fenceposts and telephone lines or stalk through the grasses, probing the ground for insects with their long, sharp bills.” Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Photo: Gerrit Vyn
“A drab sparrow with a short tail and a large bill, the Seaside Sparrow is a salt marsh specialist.” Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Photo: Laura Meyers

The “high priority” list includes everything from the Yellow-banded bumble bee…


to amphibians, such as the Eastern cricket frog…

Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

to reptiles, such as the Spotted Turtle…


to the New England cottontail…

Credit: Federalist Press

to the great mammals of the sea, like the North Atlantic right whale.


Incredibly, even the oyster, which we farm commercially and is such an important part of our cultural history, is now on the state’s “high priority” list. One reason for the oyster’s precarious state is the degraded quality of Long Island’s coastal waters due to various types of pollution.

The Main Culprit: Habitat Loss

In a 2005 state analysis of the leading threats to endangered species in New York, habitat loss is at the top of the list.

“Upstate New York has urbanized hundreds of thousands of acres of farm and forest land since 1980,” the state noted.

New York’s wetlands, home to a wide range of species and critical for flood protection, have been “incrementally destroyed, and wetland complexes fragmented, by smaller, more numerous projects.”

“Many remaining wetland communities have been reduced to small, isolated fragments whose quality is threatened by siltation, runoff from agriculture and development, and introduction of invasive species,” the state added.

Other causes of species loss in New York include degraded water quality, invasive species, incompatible forest management and agricultural practices, and climate change.

How Do We Know if State Conservation Efforts Are Working?

“Conservation action is urgent in the next ten years,” said the DEC when it released its updated Species of Greatest Conservation Need list this year. “These species are declining and must receive timely management intervention or they are likely to reach critical population levels in New York.”

Another 111 species have been designated as Species of Potential Conservation Need. The population status of these species in New York State is “poorly-known” and further research is needed, says the state.

The DEC is identifying the state’s most vulnerable species as part of an update to New York’s State Wildlife Action Plan, which is now ten years old.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires states to revise their wildlife action plans at least every 10 years. DEC says it will complete its update of New York’s SWAP this year. It would be very helpful if this update were to include an assessment of the state’s conservation efforts over the last decade.

I would be interested in asking the state DEC, how are the species identified as vulnerable in 2005 faring now? How many of them are even still here?

Moving Ahead

So how is the red-headed woodpecker going to be protected from extinction in New York?

The State has to come up with a plan to protect this handsome creature. New York’s 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan must identify:

1.) species that need “conservation action to maintain their abundance and distribution” in New York State;

2.) threats to these species; and- most important,

3.) actions that will be taken in the next 10 years to “conserve these designated species and their habitats.”

Completing the 2015 update will allow DEC to remain eligible for federal State Wildlife Grants.

[Adequate funding for the DEC’s important work is an ongoing and pressing issue. All spending -federal and state- allocated to the DEC is expected to decline 25.9 percent over the next four years.]

You Can Assist the State in Identifying Our Most Vulnerable Species

Email your comments to or

Or send them by regular mail to:

Joe Racette
Division of Fish Wildlife and Marine Resources
5th Floor
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233


  • KKF

    Great piece!