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.
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.