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Endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker's Recovery So Successful Federal Officials Are Now Considering Downlisting It

A baby Red-Cockaded woodpecker with a tag.
This baby Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is tagged in order to help ecologists and biologists keep track of the population.

Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers were one of the first bird species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Back in the 1970s, their numbers were in the low thousands. It has taken decades for the bird to recover, but it has -- to the point where now federal officials are considering downlisting it from endangered to threatened.

Ecologists and biologists warn the move may be premature. The bird calls the Pine Forests of the Southeast home, but deforestation and expanding cities have destroyed almost all their habitat. The tiny bird still needs a lot of human-directed help and the Longleaf Pine forests it inhabits are not free from danger.

“It’s a success story based on the tremendous efforts that installations like Fort Benning have played in managing their activities in such a way that has allowed the species to recover and come into a status that is no longer in danger of extinction. And that’s very, very significant," said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during a recent ceremony at Fort Benning, in Georgia.

The army and private landowners have played a significant role in helping preserve the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker’s habitat while helping the species recover. Bernhardt's not wrong, said retired ecologist Todd Engstrom who works with the Tall Timbers Research Center and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee.

"A lot of people have been working on this for decades," he said during a recent interview that took place about 15 miles north of the city, in a pristine Longleaf Pine forest where the trees stretched their necks to the sky, and tall grass and shrub plants blanketed the ground the between them.

Engstrom has studied the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker for decades. It builds its home high in the Longleaf Pine tree, which can grow to 120 feet, something that can take decades to do. The woodpeckers work of carving out a cavity can take anywhere from one to 10 years -- and they prefer old, living trees. Because of this time-consuming effort, humans have stepped in to make home building faster, while also playing matchmaker.

“So artificial nest creation and translocation changed everything. It’s a real success story," Engstrom said, explaining the conservation work researchers have put in.

Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers tend to stay in family groups, with the male birds staying close to home to help their parents take care of the young, while the females take off to find a mate. Unfortunately, that leaves the females more exposed to predators, so the ratio of male to female birds is skewed. To address that, researchers have moved birds around to help them find each other, a process known as translocation.

To demonstrate the familial relationship between the birds, Engstrom pulled a phone from his pocket and activated an app. The recorded sounds of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers echoed through the forest, drawing a reaction from the real ones, who called back, and started flitting excitedly from treetop to treetop.

“Because I played the call they’re responding back because we’re in their territory and they don’t like us," Engstrom said.

Despite the population growth, there are concerns the bird may not be fully ready to strike out on its own. Two years ago, a significant portion of its habitat in North Florida and South Georgia was struck by Hurricane Michael, which snapped trees like Longleaf Pine in half, damaging tens of thousands of acres —effectively leaving many birds homeless and vulnerable. So environmentalists turned once again the tried-and-true method of building artificial nesting cavities called Bird boxes and inserting them into trees.

"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 [Red Cockaded Woodpeckers] all throughout the southeast,” explained Joel Castro, a forest service partner who spoke with WFSU in 2018.

For Engstrom, the work of preserving the bird mirrors that of protecting what remains of the Pine forests it inhabits.

“This is a personal bias, but…this is a magnificent forest. It has great beauty and great biological diversity associated with it. Those are two pretty good reasons to care.”

A 60-day public comment period on downlisting the bird opened in late September. If the move is approved, Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, the forests they inhabit, and the people who guard them would have fewer protections at their disposal. Engstrom said the greater concern is removing the bird completely off the list.

To learn more about the PBS Age of Nature program on WFSU-TV and our special online discussion happening October 20 at 7 p.m. Eastern, head to wfsu.org/ecology blog.

Corrected: October 11, 2020 at 2:58 PM EDT
The original version of this article stated Longleaf Pine trees can grow to 70 feet. They can actually grow to 120 feet. Red Cockaded Woodpeckers build their nests around 70 feet up in the tree.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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