Long before the first steam-powered skidder hauled the first log out of the southern piney woods, an estimated 1.6 million Red-cockaded Woodpeckers inhabited nearly 100 million acres of longleaf pine that stretched from New Jersey to Florida, and west to Texas.
Few of the 19th-century travelers who explored the region made note of the bird—a 7-inch woodpecker with black and white striping across its back—although it was well-known to John James Audubon, who studied the bird closely for its portrait in his epic book, The Birds of America.
“It glides upwards and sidewise along the trunks and branches, on the lower as well as the upper side of the latter,” Audubon wrote, “moving with astonishing alertness, and at every motion emitting a short, shrill and clear note, which can be heard at a considerable distance.”
But as the longleaf pine disappeared into voracious mills that ran 24 hours a day, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s population dwindled along with the pine.
By 1935, 80 percent of the longleaf had been felled, and the woodpecker’s fortunes followed suit.
By 1970, its population had plummeted to about 10,000 birds.
In 1973, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was on the endangered list when President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law, launching plans to prevent the extinction of struggling plants and animals and remove them from the list.
Forty-five years later, the bird is still listed as endangered. I went to the North Carolina Sandhills to find out why.
Restoring the Forest Through Prescribed Fire
On an overcast morning in June, Dr. Jay Carter and I jolted over a pitted road on Fort Bragg, the largest active military installation in the world and home base of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne division. More than 53,000 soldiers train here, sharing 120,000 acres of longleaf pine with the Southeast’s second-largest population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
Since the late 1970s when he was a grad student at North Carolina State University, Carter has been part of a research project that has banded and studied thousands of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Fort Bragg. He’s also a consulting biologist on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery team charged with charting a path to move the species off the endangered list. Much of the knowledge Dr. Carter and his colleagues have compiled about these woodpeckers has been put to work by the U.S. Army saving the species right here on Fort Bragg.
Carter stopped our car beside a stand of widely spaced longleaf pine trees.
“You were asking me what had changed here,” Carter said as we ambled under the 70-year-old pines. “Well, riding along this road in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you would have been riding through a tunnel. All you could see were turkey oaks and black jack oaks. And if you wanted to get into the woods, you had to use a machete and hack a trail.”
It was a lack of fire that created those dense forests. In presettlement forests, fires swept through every few years, preparing the soil for seedfall and keeping the scrub oaks out of the canopy. The longleaf itself is protected from these fires by a thick bark, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker adapted to fires by excavating its nesting cavity high on a live pine, well above the level of the flames.
But during most of the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service snuffed out forest fires. With fewer fires, oaks began to reach up into the midcanopy of the longleaf pine forests, hindering foraging for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
Today, forest managers at Fort Bragg set periodic prescribed fires.
“In the 1990s Fort Bragg shifted over to burning on a two- or three-year rotation,” Carter said. “Prescribed fire over the last 20 years has restored the open aspect of the pine forest. You can almost see out to the horizon.”
As he spoke, he pointed to a nearby tree where a Red-cockaded Woodpecker on an outer limb was churtling in soft but distinct bursts. One of the challenges in studying the birds, Carter said, is identifying the males. Males and females are almost identical, but males have a nearly invisible dash of red feathers above their white cheek patch—its red cockade. Before I could reach for my binoculars the bird flew away.
Artificial Nests Provide an Opportunity
Despite forest management with more frequent burning, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were still declining across the Southeast in the 1990s, two decades after their ESA listing. Something was still missing from the landscape.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a cooperative breeder that lives in family groups composed of the breeding male and female, and one or more young males from previous broods that help care for the fledglings. The family group lives in a cluster of pine trees where each bird has its own cavity.
While other woodpecker species choose dead trees for their cavities, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers excavate in live trees. (In the snake-infested Piney Woods, holes drilled in living wood ooze sap that coats the bark and repels predators.) But it takes a lot more time to peck away at a live tree; chipping through the longleaf’s thin sapwood and channeling down in its dense heartwood is a process that can take as long as 12 years. That’s why Red-cockaded Woodpeckers instinctively look for the oldest trees in the forest to make their cavities. The older the tree, the more likely it is to be infected by a fungus that softens the heartwood, making it easier for excavation.
In the primeval forest, there were plenty of longleaf pines from 150 to 400 years old. But by the 1930s most of those Methuselahs had been felled and rendered into structural timbers for an America flexing its industrial muscles. The missing ingredient in today’s longleaf pine forests, then, is trees old enough to host a Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest.
Research from North Carolina State and Clemson universities in the late 1980s showed that artificial nesting cavities installed in young trees might be an answer to that problem. In trials, the birds adapted rapidly to the cavities, but could they be installed quickly enough, on a large enough scale, to benefit an entire population?
The answer came in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. In September of 1989, whipped by 145 mph winds, this giant bulldozer of a hurricane crashed through South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest, which supported a large population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Hugo toppled 87 percent of the estimated 1,765 cavity trees and killed hundreds of red-cockadeds.
Provided with an opportunity to test their artificial cavities on a mass scale, Carter and other biologists joined with the U.S. Forest Service to install 557 artificial cavities at Francis Marion. The next spring, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers occupied 40 percent of them. Today, half of the territories in the Southeast depend on artificial cavities, most of them in national forests and military bases.
Habitat for the Woodpecker, Habitat for the Military
Installing artificial cavities was easy compared to convincing forest managers on public and private lands to follow the prescribed-burn forest management practices being pushed by the USFWS. On Fort Bragg and other bases across the South, conflicts between the USFWS and the military in the 1990s threatened to derail Red-cockaded Woodpecker recovery efforts. The USFWS and conservation groups wanted more restrictions on the movement of soldiers and military vehicles around woodpecker nest cavity trees. Army personnel, meanwhile, argued that their mission was to train soldiers, not protect woodpeckers. Politicians, such as North Carolina’s then-Senator Jesse Helms, called on Congress to exempt Fort Bragg and other military bases from the Endangered Species Act.
Tom McCollum, a Fort Bragg public affairs officer who trained on the base as an Army officer, remembers how frustrating the restrictions were. Soldiers couldn’t get closer than 200 feet from nest trees flagged with white stripes.
“I felt like I was stuck,” McCollum said. “I couldn’t maneuver through here because of this banded tree, and I couldn’t maneuver over there because of the oaks that had grown up.”
In time both sides learned that soldiers and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are not mutually exclusive. Frequent burning on Fort Bragg kept the forests open, creating better habitat for the woodpecker and more maneuvering space for soldiers.
As it turned out, Fort Bragg was running out of habitat, too. The base badly needed more land to buffer the residential developments encroaching on its boundaries. The Nature Conservancy was quick to step in, putting together a deal that leveraged millions in funding from the Department of Defense, as well as other conservation groups, to protect 21,000 acres of land adjacent to Fort Bragg for military training and Red-cockaded Woodpecker management.
It took over a decade, but eventually the military and conservation groups learned they could work together to achieve their common goals.
“It worked out big time,” said McCollum. “By our conservation efforts we’ve been able to maintain the area for woodpeckers and open more training areas up for the units. It’s been a win-win.”
A Safe Harbor for Woodpeckers
Army base officials weren’t the only ones unhappy with the ESA regulations for Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat back in the 1990s; private landowners were plenty upset, too. One landowner preemptively cut 600 acres of prime longleaf pine just to stop red-cockadeds from colonizing the trees on his property. He also filed suit against the USFWS, claiming that the ESA regulations had reduced his property’s value. As other landowners joined him in preemptive cutting, the fight became a fiasco for the embattled USFWS.
To defuse tensions, the USFWS introduced Safe Harbor Agreements in 1995, a new program targeted for private landowners in the North Carolina Sandhills. The agreements give private landowners protection (“Safe Harbor”) from future restrictions on their land, as long as they at least protect the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers present on their property at the time they sign the agreement.
Today Safe Harbor Agreements are issued for private-lands habitat across the country for more than 20 endangered species, and the program has been widely declared a success. But it does have critics. A 2018 article in The Condor, a journal published by the American Ornithological Society, studied the effects of Safe Harbor Agreements on private properties in North Carolina and found little improvement in Red-cockaded Woodpecker breeding. Because Safe Harbor-enrolled private landowners were afraid of burning their forests, they relied instead primarily on artificial nest cavities to meet their agreements.
“Our main point in the paper was that in the absence of using fire on Safe Harbor lands … we can’t really enhance the foraging habitat,” said Kerry Brust, one of the authors and a wildlife biologist at the Sandhills Ecological Institute. “Because of the lack of fire, they’ve got to do something for the birds, and the artificial cavities is that ‘something.’”
The authors did praise Safe Harbor Agreements for ending the preemptive cutting of potential Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting trees and improving local attitudes toward conservation. More than 140 Safe Harbor Agreements for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have been signed with private landowners who warmed up to the idea of managing endangered-species habitat on their lands.
But even so, Safe Harbors could accomplish a lot more toward red-cockaded recovery if they actually improved breeding habitat. That would mean introducing prescribed fire on private lands, but Safe Harbors offer landowners little incentive and no financial help for burning.
“This is a voluntary program,” explained John Carpenter, who coordinates the North Carolina state Safe Harbor program. “Some people say, ‘How much do I get paid to do this?’ Unfortunately, we don’t have anything in our budget right now that allows us to do that.”
Despite Safe Harbor’s mixed results, the latest figures from the USFWS confirm that the Red-cockaded population has rebounded sharply from its low in the early 1990s and is on a “consistent, upward trend,” as USFWS Recovery Coordinator Will McDearman put it. While accurate counts of individual birds are hard to come by, McDearman says the more important measure is the number of active clusters today being used by a potential breeding group or a single bird. By that metric, the woodpecker is doing well. In 2018 there were 7,800 occupied clusters across its range, a 38 percent jump since 2003.
Yet the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is still classified as endangered because the population goals set in the recovery plan have not been met. The plan grouped the species into 39 populations across the Southeast, each with its own recovery goal. At least 20 of those populations must reach their recovery goals for the bird to be downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened.” By 2018, 15 of those populations had attained their objectives for downlisting, including the Sandhills East population in Fort Bragg. Other populations could reach their objectives in the next 10 to 15 years.
As for delisting the bird entirely, the recovery plan requires that Red-cockaded Woodpecker populations be sustainable in natural breeding habitat, no longer dependent on artificial cavities. That will only happen when the young pine trees in the Southeast grow older.
Even then, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers will still be a conservation-reliant species—dependent on human management, if not for artificial cavities, then for maintaining the bird’s fire-dependent longleaf pine habitat.
“You can project that [Red-cockaded Woodpeckers] will continue to increase, but that assumes management activities like prescribed burning will continue,” said Jeff Walters of Virginia Tech, one of the foremost red-cockaded biologists. “If the bird’s [endangered] status changes, can you still have that management? If you can’t, then the status can’t change.”
Further complicating the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s future is the increasing threat of catastrophic storms. In October 2018, Hurricane Michael pummeled the Florida Panhandle, home to the Southeast’s largest red-cockaded population. The USFWS estimates at least 600 artificial cavities will be needed to replace lost nesting cavities there, and the agency says the regional red-cockaded population may have lost so many birds that it no longer meets its local recovery goal.
Even if delisting or downlisting seem like elusive goals, there are at least signs recovery is progressing. As we wrapped up our conversation at Fort Bragg, Jay Carter and I walked through another restored longleaf stand. He pointed out that a red-cockaded was drilling out a natural cavity, a sign that recovery was occurring. I could sense his feeling of satisfaction.
“Sometime in the next 10 to 20 years we won’t have to put in artificial cavities anymore,” Carter said. “All we’ll need to do is burn.”
Lawrence W. Earley is a freelance writer from Raleigh, North Carolina. A former editor for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, Earley is the author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest.