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Red-cockaded woodpecker

The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) was once a common bird, distributed continuously across the southeastern United States [1]. The total population at the time of European colonization is estimated to have ranged from 920,000 to >1.5 million groups [2]. By the time of its listing as an endangered species in 1979, the red-cockaded woodpecker had declined to fewer than 10,000 individuals in approximately 4,000 widely scattered, isolated and declining groups [2]. Because red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders with “helpers” that are available to replace breeders that die, the size of the breeding population is not strongly affected by the number of breeders that die, or by how many young are produced each year [1]. Thus, the number of potential breeding groups (or “active clusters”) is a better measure of population size than are numbers of individuals [1]. Because red-cockaded woodpeckers typically take years to complete a nesting/roosting cavity (cavities are excavated in large, old, live pine trees over many years, allowing resin produced by the tree to build up and form a barrier to predators), the availability of cavities is thought to be the main factor limiting the number of breeding populations [1]. Currently, there are an estimated 14,068 red-cockaded woodpeckers living in 5,627 known active clusters across 11 states [1].

The precipitous decline in red-cockaded woodpecker populations was caused by an almost complete loss of habitat [1]. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystems, of primary importance to red-cockaded woodpeckers, are among the most endangered systems on earth [1]. The longleaf pine communities that historically characterized the Atlantic and Gulf coastal regions covered an estimated 24 to 37 million ha. Today, longleaf forests cover only 1.2 million ha, of which roughly 3% remains in relatively natural condition [2]. Logging is responsible for much of this decline. Logging practices before the late 1800s left a number of residual trees that were suitable for red-cockaded woodpecker cavities, allowing red-cockaded woodpeckers to survive early forest exploitation [1]. Loss of residual trees in the 20th century, however, has been a major factor in the decline of woodpecker populations [1]. In addition, the cutting of second-growth longleaf pines began during World War II and continues today. Much remaining longleaf is aging without replacement [1]. Fire suppression also has led to changes in tree species composition and forest structure [1]. Under a regime of fire suppression, longleaf pine is replaced by other species of pines and hardwoods, and the open, old-growth pine savannas needed by red-cockaded woodpeckers are replaced by mixed hardwood forests with a multi-layered mid-story and canopy [1].

All monitored populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers (with one exception) declined in size throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s [1]. Declines and local extirpations were documented on public and private lands [1]. In the 1990s, most populations on federal land were stabilized through intensive management based on a new understanding of population dynamics and the use of new management tools (artificial cavities, bird translocations and prescribed burning) [1]. Many populations even showed increases [1]. The implementation, in 1992, of the private lands strategy between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private land conservation partners also helped to slow, stabilize and in some cases reverse population declines on privately owned lands [1].

From 1997 to 2000, 44 of 55 populations on federal lands were either stable or increasing [1]. The Apalachicola Ranger District, together with the Wakulla Ranger District of the Apalachicola National Forest (Florida), currently supports the largest woodpecker population in existence, with 665 active clusters [1]. Fifteen military installations harbor red-cockaded woodpeckers. All but one of these populations appear to be stable or increasing [1]. There are also 1,296 known active clusters on private lands in 11 states and the existence of up to 280 additional groups is considered likely -- 509 of these groups are protected, in agreements involving 139 private landowners [1].

Most important for the recovery of red-cockaded woodpeckers is the widespread and frequent application of early-mid growing season fire and the preservation of large, older longleaf pine trees [1]. The isolation of woodpecker groups through further habitat fragmentation must also be prevented since the disruption of “helper” dispersal to neighboring territories causes populations to become much less likely to persist through time [1]. Two types of catastrophes pose threats to red-cockaded woodpecker populations: catastrophic winds (hurricanes, downbursts and tornadoes) and outbreaks of southern pine beetles [1]. Although beetles typically do not pose a major threat, hurricanes have caused extensive damage to red-cockaded woodpecker populations (for example, Hurricane Hugo in 1989) [1]. In order to protect the species from this threat, a number of populations, broadly spaced geographically and including many inland populations, need to be maintained [1].

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formulated recovery criteria for the red-cockaded woodpecker by creating 11 recovery units delineated according to eco-regions [1]. Thirteen populations have been designated “primary core” populations, 10 “secondary core” populations, 16 “essential support” populations. These populations are distributed among recovery units to ensure the representation of broad geographic and genetic variation, and goals have been set for total numbers of active clusters at each location [1]. The hope is to achieve species viability by maintaining a number of populations within each unit that, with immigration, are able to withstand genetic and demographic threats [1]. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that if all recovery recommendations were followed, the red-cockaded woodpecker could be considered for downlisting by 2050 and delisting by 2075 [1].

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Recovery plan for the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis): second revision. Atlanta, GA. 296 pp.
[2] Rudolph C.D., R.N. Conner, and J.R. Walters. 2004. Red-cockaded woodpecker recovery: an integrated strategy. In: Costa, Ralph; Daniels, Susan J., eds. Red-cockaded woodpecker: Road to recovery. Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishers: 70-76. Available on line: (http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/ja_rudolph013.pdf accessed 11/18/05).

Banner photo © Phillip Colla