Bringing red-cockaded woodpeckers—nature’s historic preservationists—back to Alabama

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Red-cockaded woodpecker near it’s cavity – home. Photo via Mark Bailey

In our first story about animals returning to Alabama, we learned about black bears making a comeback in Northeast Alabama near Little River Canyon and Lookout Mountain area. In this, our second installment, we explore efforts to preserve and restore the red-cockaded woodpecker to our state.

The Bird That Lives in Historic Trees

Red-cockaded woodpecker entering cavity with sap streaming down the tree. Photo via Eric Spadgenske with USFWS

Red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are nature’s original historic preservationists. 

The only woodpecker east of the Mississippi that makes cavities in living trees, this charismatic black and white bird insists on building its homes in old growth longleaf pine trees that are 80 to 300 years old. 

“RCWs actually excavate into the trunk of a sappy live pine tree, which is quite a feat,” Mark Bailey, a conservation biologist who has worked on the recovery of RCWs for the past 18 years, told us. “Because they live in a fire-maintained ecosystem, it would not be wise to make their home in a dead snag that will just get burned up with the next fire.”

He continued, 

“It takes them a long time to do it—as much as a year or two to complete the cavity. A lot of effort goes into it. 

The tree has to be a certain age, at least 80 years old, in which it has developed a fungus called red-heart. The fungus gets into the heartwood, which makes the wood softer, so once the woodpecker gets past the sapwood to the heartwood, it can chip away at it and make a nice little cavity, which is about the shape and volume of a soft drink can.”

  

The cavity is occupied by one RCW and is used for roosting, nesting and raising babies. The birds also peck away “sap wells” around the trunk that ooze sap. The sap deters climbing snakes, such as the corn and grey rat snakes that might eat their chicks.

Why RCWs Are Rare

The red-cockaded woodpecker is named for the cockade or tuft of red feathers on the male, which is seldom seen unless the bird wants to display it. If you see red on a woodpecker, it is almost certainly not a RCW. Photo via Mark Bailey

According to Bailey, before Europeans settled in Alabama, there were vast longleaf forests along our coastal plain (from Montgomery toward Mobile) and Piedmont area (near Anniston and Sylacagua). As a result, RCWs were one of the most common of the nine species of woodpeckers in the state. Currently, we are down to eight species after losing the Ivory-billed woodpecker 100 years ago.

In the early 1800s, there were 90M+ acres of longleaf pine forests in the South. By the 2000s, there were only about 3M acres of longleaf left.

Pine resin being harvested from trees and taken to the turpentine still, 1903. Vast areas of longleaf pine were ravaged by this practice Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The reason for the dramatic decline? Longleaf forests provided timber to build colonial America along with the “sap” from the trees that was turned into turpentine and tar to maintain vessels throughout the wooden sailing ships era. In addition to timbering, the virgin longleaf forests were replaced with fast-growing trees to feed the timber industry. Thousands of more acres of land were also cleared for agriculture.

Prescribed fire at a longleaf pine forest. Photo via Longleaf Alliance Facebook page

And remember Smoky Bear? Smoky is now an advocate for prescribed fire, but he wasn’t always. Longleaf forests need fire to remain healthy. Because of fire suppression, longleaf forests were throttled and overtaken by other forest ecosystems. The bottom line—woodpecker habitats became increasingly scarce and fragmented.  

As a result, we nearly lost red-cockaded woodpeckers forever.

RCWs by the Numbers

Once one of the most populous woodpeckers in the South, RCWs became one of the rarest. Simply put, old growth longleaf pine trees were gone and so were the woodpeckers. 

It is all about habitat. Today in Alabama, most of the remaining clusters of RCWs exist on public land, but two populations are on private land. Here is where they can be found:

  • Oakmulgee, Talladega and Shoal Creek Districts of the Talladega National Forest
  • Conecuh National Forest 
  • Coosa Wildlife Management Area and some adjacent private lands near Lake Mitchell
  • One population on private lands in Macon and Bullock counties

Important Stats

  • There are 24,000 RCWs in their entire range
  • Approximately 800-1000 RCWs live in Alabama

With most remaining populations stable, and in many cases increasing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in September to reclassify the bird from endangered to threatened.

RCW Condos

Mark Bailey preparing to replace this old artificial RCW cavity at Lake Mitchell. Photo via Mark Bailey

It will take generations to restore RCWs. We haven’t found a way to quickly grow century-old longleaf pine trees with heartwood fungus. But there have been some breakthroughs.  

“If we have an area that has all the elements except for the age of the trees, we can go in there and install artificial cavities that can be quickly occupied,” said Bailey. 

 When Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast in 1989, it ripped through the Francis Marion National Forest, home to some of the largest remaining old growth longleaf pine forests and RCW populations. With hundreds of trees down and many homeless RCWs, local scientists built and installed artificial cavities to save the bird.

A block of wood that has holes drilled in it to simulate the cavity, the “RCW condo” can be put in a loblolly or shortleaf pine without the redheart characteristics. RCWs will quickly occupy it.  

“I’ve installed hundreds (artificial cavities) over the years,” added Bailey. “Sometimes the birds will be in them the next day. They will be in them the very next day, especially after a storm, and a tree has been lost. You put up a hole in the tree. They are so intimately familiar with every tree in their territory, they find it right away and go right in.”

Along with finding new homes after a storm, the birds can be translocated in an area where RCWs used to exist. Even though there are not many places in Alabama like this, as you can see in the video below, you can establish a population.

Why Red-cockaded Woodpeckers Matter

Closeup of a RCW. Photo via Longleaf Alliance

The recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker is a generational project. It is going to take 80 to 100 years to establish an old growth longleaf forest. Fortunately, there is a region-wide initiative funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to bring back millions of acres of longleaf pine and the bird.

Is it worth it? We asked Mark Bailey.

“My feeling is we are all passengers on this planet and these birds were living here before we were. I would certainly hate to see them disappear because of our greed or carelessness—especially since we now know how to keep that from happening. We have an obligation to keep them around much like we do any other species. They are the flagship species for longleaf. The interest in the longleaf ecosystem has been helped by this very charismatic little bird that we all can get behind and conserve.”

 

What You Can Do to Help

Want to support efforts in Alabama to restore the red-cockaded woodpecker and its longleaf pine habitat?

Connect with Longleaf Alliance, The Nature Conservancy in Alabama and the U.S Forests in Alabama.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.