Hurricane Michael Damage Threatens Florida's Endangered Woodpeckers

Nov 2, 2018

People weren’t the only victims of Hurricane Michael. Endangered woodpeckers are in trouble following the storm and biologists are racing to keep the species alive.

Joel Castro uses a chainsaw and special equipment to insert an artificial cavity into a pine tree at Apalachicola National Forest.
Credit Eleanor Clark / WFSU-FM

Wildlife Technician Brenton Holt is surveying damage at the Apalachicola National Forest. He says parts of the forest took the brunt of the storm’s strong winds.

“Lots of tree damage, habitat damage, whole stands of timber completely blown down. Similar to what you’re seeing over in Calhoun County, Jackson County, Bay County, where of the eye of the storm went through," says Holt. 

That’s a problem for a unique bird that calls the forest home. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, or RCWs, are an endangered species that love Northwest Florida for its pine savanna ecosystems. They’re picky birds though. As the only woodpecker species that builds cavities for their nests into live pine trees, they also only use trees more than 60 years old.

Before the storm, one area of the Apalachicola forest had 20 trees with woodpecker cavities, but after Hurricane Michael, Holt says only two of those trees are still standing. And he says the birds living in trees that were knocked over, likely didn’t survive. Rob Meyer is a biologist at Tall Timbers Research Station who also studies red-cockaded woodpeckers. He says even for birds who did survive the storm, the danger isn’t over.

“But the bigger issue is going to be the weeks after the storm, where maybe some birds have to roost on limbs, instead of in their cavities that have been knocked over. And so, you could expect some mortality afterwards,” Meyer says. 

An artificial cavity at Tall Timbers ready to be inserted into a pine tree. The metal on the outside of the box prevents other woodpecker species from widening the box's hole in order to move in.
Credit Eleanor Clark / WFSU-FM

Without their cavity the birds are vulnerable to attacks from owls, hawks, and even tree snakes. But biologists are working fast to help the species survive. Their plans involve creating artificial cavities, called inserts, for the birds to nest in.

Joel Castro is a forest service partner who spends a lot of time up in the trees, inserting the cavities. He says the approach got its start in the wake of another devastating hurricane. 

“Putting in artificial inserts for the red-cockaded woodpeckers started back in Hurricane Hugo, the late eighties, early nineties and has become the accepted quick way to provide a suitable cavity for RCWs all throughout the southeast,” Castro says. 

A pine tree that fell due to Hurricane Michael with an artificial cavity insert for Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers at Tall Timbers.
Credit Eleanor Clark / WFSU-FM

Meyer explains how the inserts work.

“So, it’s essentially a bird box but we actually put it inside the tree. And so, what all of our biologists are trying to do right now are climb these trees with specialized ladders and with a chainsaw, cut out this little box shape in a tree nearby so we can just insert that box into the tree, then putty it up, make sure it stays in there, then we kind of cover it up, make it look natural. And essentially we can give a bird a free home in about thirty minutes, where it takes the bird naturally to make a single cavity anywhere from six months to years to make a single cavity,” says Meyer. 

The Forest Service expects to place more than four hundred cavities in the Apalachicola forest alone, to make up for what was lost during Hurricane Michael.

A pine savanna ecosystem in the Apalachicola National Forest shows pine trees damaged from Hurricane Michael.
Credit Eleanor Clark / WFSU-FM

During a quiet moment at Tall Timbers, bugs chirp, birds call, and far off in the distance, a Backhoe is salvaging downed trees to sell for timber. Recovery is just getting started for red-cockaded woodpeckers in the area. But there may be cause for optimism in the long term.

Experts say Northwest Florida’s thousands of downed trees will serve as added fuel, creating hotter and more intense fires for the next few years. And for fire dependent species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, that’s actually good news.