Pine forests were once common in this part of the world -- from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas. It was a rich environment for a small and smart little woodpecker that is now endangered.
When settlers first arrived in what is now the American southeast, they found 90 million acres of mature pines – the perfect material for home and ship construction – and something that had to come down so the newcomers could farm. Today, only 3% of that ecosystem remains.
The Nature Conservancy’s Brian van Eerden stands in the middle of a large preserve southeast of Petersburg, listening to a low, rustling sound he had to explain during a hike with his daughter Abigail.
“She was on my shoulders, and we were walking through here. She said, ‘Dad. I hear the ocean!’ And of course she what she was hearing was NOT the ocean. We’re about 80 miles from the ocean. What she was hearing was that wonderful roll of wind through the canopy, and it’s not something you can hear everywhere.”
Nor does one often hear the call of the red cockaded woodpecker, a small bird with black and white bars on it back, a black crown, and in males, a spot of red above the cheeks. They’re remarkable birds really – reknowned for raising their young collectively, with helper birds joining parents to feed the young, and they’re the only woodpecker to nest in live trees – mature pines infected with a fungus that makes the wood soft. Birds make a 3-4 inch hole and then excavate a cavity where they can lay eggs and raise young. They also tap into reserves of sticky tree sap – spreading it along the bark outside its hole.
That, says research biologist Mike Wilson, keeps rat snakes and other predators away from eggs and baby birds. “I’ve seen snakes climb red cockaded woodpecker trees heading towards their cavities and then hit that sap area and then turn around and go back down the tree.”
But other factors have taken a toll – especially the loss of old trees to loggers and farmers. 85-year-old Mitchell Byrd is an ornithologist and founder of the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg. He documented the progressive decline of Red Cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia.
“Even when they were on the endangered list, their habitat was being cut away. I was actually at the Waverly Diner one day having breakfast one day, and I saw a logging truck come by with two logs with woodpecker holes in them.”
By 2002, only 11 birds were believed to remain in Virginia – and just two breeding pairs, each needing 200 acres to forage. That’s when the Nature Conservancy stepped in. It bought 32-hundred acres of forest and began restoring the Piney Grove property – using controlled, low-level fires to remove weeds and brush that had grown over the forest floor. Years ago, van Eerden says, lightening did that job.
“Those lightning strikes, historically, would start wildfires that would sweep for days across thousands and thousands of acres.”
That cleared the land – making way for one of the most biologically diverse forest systems in North America. “Forty different plant species have been documented in a square meter, and to maintain that diversity, you need light.”
Once that rich forest floor was restored, there were plenty of grubs and insects for the woodpeckers, and they were able to raise all of the babies that hatched. Before, they often let one or more nestlings starve. Again the Center for Conservation Biology’s Mike Wilson. “If conditions go bad – bad weather, low insect densities – they’ll let one of those young perish, so the survivorship of the other three are increased.”
The Nature Conservancy also began making nesting cavities for the birds. Land steward Bobby Clontz says that may have saved lives.“It takes on average 2-5 years for a woodpecker to create a natural cavity. That’s when they’re at their most vulnerable. They’re doing what we call open roosting. They’re exposed to the elements and to other potential predators, so we go out and jump start that new territory establishment. We climb the tree, cut a box into the tree, insert this, and then we’ll putty over it, and they’ve got a pre-made home.”
They also reinforced the entrance, so southern flying squirrels and larger woodpeckers can’t enlarge the hole and take over the space.
Because the population of red cockaded woodpeckers had fallen so low, the Nature Conservancy was concerned about a lack of genetic diversity, so it imported 25 birds from North Carolina, and today there’s a thriving group of more than 50 red cockaded woodpeckers in Piney Grove.
To keep tabs on them, biologist Bryan Watts climbed six thin stackable ladders to a nest fifty feet above the forest floor, fished out two tiny babies, tucked them into a cloth pouch and carried them back down for a check up. He laid the pink nestlings on a burgundy bath towel where they stretched and complained.
After a few seconds, one of them seemed to collapse.
“Is he alright? He’s probably asleep. They’re tired all the time, because they’re growing all the time, and it takes all their energy just to grow.”
The field team weighed, photographed and banded each bird, then replaced the babies in their nest. Clontz says the timing was critical. The birds must be 5-10 days old, when their legs are long enough for banding, and their eyes are closed.
“Once they open their eyes, they can detect that it’s not their parents coming to feed them, and they lie flat in the bottom of that cavity, and they’re difficult to remove. "
At this age, they seem vulnerable, but they’re actually strong and healthy.
“This first nestling weighed out at 36 grams – a nice, healthy size for a bird of this age. A face only a mother could love.”
The scientists have done this dozens of times and have never lost a bird. They’ll continue to monitor the growth of these babies using something called a PeeperScope – a camera on an extendable pole that can look into nesting cavities and take pictures. It’s a device that’s been getting a lot of mileage lately. This group of woodpeckers, which had been producing eight or nine fledglings annually, is now up to 25 babies a year.