Here’s some good news: How a finicky, focused bird made its way back

by Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal

A couple of days ago someone asked me what bird I’ve found most interesting to write about so far. The answer caught me by surprise – it was the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the only endangered woodpecker in the country and the bird I happened to be researching at that very moment.

When you hear how finicky this bird is, you’ll understand why he’s so fascinating – and why he was headed toward extinction 50 years ago.

An adult Red-cockaded Woodpecker shops for food/Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

For starters, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker can only survive by boring a hole 20 feet high in either a loblolly pine or a longleaf pine. (Yes, just two trees.) The tree needs to be at least 70 years old. Furthermore, the pine has to be alive, but its heart must be diseased and starting to rot.

To make matters worse, each bird requires its own hole in its own tree. While the Red-cockaded does live in cooperative family groups, they refuse to cohabitate.

They don’t tolerate neighbors either, so it takes from 3 to 60 acres of old southern pine forest to support one family’s lifestyle. Let another Red-cockaded try to cross its boundaries, and the resident woodpeckers will chase it off.

From time to time, in order to stay healthy, nature demands that these forests catch on fire to clear the understory of hardwood trees that impede the woodpecker’s flight and to destroy smaller vegetation that harbors its predators. (The fire doesn’t harm the birds. They fly out of the way and return when the flames peter out.)

A recap: Each Red-cockaded Woodpecker family needs at least three acres of charred forest in the Southeast with one of two types of pine trees that are 70+ years old and dying but not dead.

Without it, the entire species goes caput.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s range map, from the American Bird Conservancy

And go caput it nearly did. Before Europeans arrived, these specialized pine forests covered some 90 million acres in a wide swath of the country. Enter civilization with its logging, farming and turpentine production, and now only three million acres remain – one percent of the original habitat.

Dial forward to 1973 and the Endangered Species Act. With protective laws and funding in place, researchers and conservationists got their orders to go save this species.

Nobody knows exactly how many Red-cockaded Woodpeckers exist in the country today, and the Fish & Wildlife service is gearing up for a new census. In 2003, there were an estimated 14,000 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers living in 5,627 active family groups across 11 states from Oklahoma to Virginia. That’s up from an estimated 4,700 family groups in 1993.

To make a long story short, this is one lucky bird with one personality trait that helped to save its life: When a Red-cockaded Woodpecker finds the right tree, it becomes extremely focused. An explosion can go off nearby, and the birds barely notice.

If this woodpecker were willing, I could see the president of the United States giving him a medal at the State of the Union address:

“Just look at this bird. He works all by himself for up to three long years hammering a tree with his very own beak to build a house for his children. America, that’s what I call family values.” (Applause from the gallery.)

“The Red-cockaded Woodpecker spends hours every single day defending his borders. He’s a military hero, surviving one of the longest battles in our country’s history. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker took advantage of this country’s excellent welfare programs to rebuild his life. He is an excellent, successful woodpecker, and tonight we celebrate.” (More applause.)

In the current political climate, however, this story could end quite differently. The President has struck a blow to both the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty. With profit-seekers eyeing forests on public lands and other economic pressures, this significantly recovering but still fragile species could get kicked off the endangered list 50 years too soon. This, my friends, would be an American tragedy, and a story for another day.

Wildlife managers wrap nesting trees in foil to protect fledglings from predators.

So back to the conservationists, the true heroes of this tale. Starting in 1973 with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, biologists spent roughly 20 years researching the woodpeckers, figuring out what they needed to survive and how to help. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America website calls the Red-cockaded Woodpecker the most researched bird in the world.

After Hurricane Hugo destroyed a large swath of Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, an alarmed Fish and Wildlife Service sprang into action. As it turns out, most of the remaining forests suitable for the Red-cockaded were located in national forests and on U.S. military bases.

Working with the Department of Defense, management guidelines were adopted at six locations — Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), Fort Benning (Georgia), Fort Bragg (North Carolina), Fort Polk (Louisiana), Fort Stewart (Georgia), and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (North Carolina).

At these military installations, soldiers and woodpeckers share the same forests with little inconvenience or complaint on either side. As a result, Red-cockaded Woodpecker populations on the six military bases increased as much as 50 percent between 1994 and 2002.

Soldiers in training roam these old pine forests firing their weapons, but biologists figured out the soldiers don’t even need to be that careful around the birds. (I learned this from a recent NPR story about the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and their future outlook. Cllick here for the link.)

The NPR story went on to say that at Fort Bragg, the percussion from nearby artillery fire has been known to shake a Red-cockaded Woodpecker right off its tree. He barely notices — just flutters in the air and gets back on the trunk to continue whatever he was doing. That’s what I call extreme focus.

A Red-Cockaded peaks from its home in a man-made cavity

The Fish & Wildlife Service also worked with private landowners using conservation measures that included moving birds in threatened habitats to protected forests. Conservationists also devised an artificial cavity that could be installed in pine trees. It takes one to three years for the Red-cockaded to bore its own hole, and these man-made houses allow them to start the business of breeding more quickly.

Finally, there’s the matter of fire, a touchy subject for a generation trained by Smoky the Bear to prevent forest fires at all cost. However, to stay healthy, mature longleaf and loblolly pines need fire to clear the forest floor. This occurs naturally in undisturbed pine woodlands, and in today’s managed forests, experts set fire to the understory periodically using a procedure called a “controlled burn.”

There was indeed a fire burning in the distance a few weeks ago when we visited St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Florida to photograph a family of three Red-cockaded Woodpeckers living there. When you locate a family — a mating pair with two to four offspring – they put on quite a show. Often the birds are so close and so low on the tree, you can see them with the naked eye.

The woodpeckers poke their black-and-white heads out of their holes shortly after sunrise and spend the rest of the day zooming from pine to pine, eating and defending their territory. Unless a male is extremely agitated, you won’t to see its namesake “red cockade.” But you can identify one by the large, distinct white patch on the side of its head.

We spent a couple of hours following the woodpecker family through the open savannah woods in this state park near Fellsmere, Fla., where their “extreme focus” was on full display. They didn’t seem to notice us at all, making for some excellent photo opportunities.

I have labeled these birds finicky, but in retrospect, they just love the trees they were born to love. If all they need is a stand of old, fire-singed pines in a healthy forest, don’t they deserve to have it?


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David and Rosemary Bowes March 25, 2020 - 3:17 pm

Mother Nature must have wings!

Ed Sowney March 23, 2020 - 3:37 pm

Hey Bev, Hope you’re both well. Karen and I love the “flying lessons”, especially now that we’re on lock down.

Anders Gyllenhaal March 26, 2020 - 8:07 am

Hey, thanks so much for your note. How’s your lock-down going? We’ve pretty much laid low, but try to get out for a little while each day to do some birding. Certainly seems like the perfect social distancing activity. We’re about to get a stay-home order for the county of Raleigh today, but they still let you exercise. We’re thinking birding is exercise, no?

Liza Bennett February 28, 2020 - 5:24 pm

Thanks, Bev. Great piece with a lot of fascinating detail, but I particularly liked your flight of fancy with the State of the Union honors!


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