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Red-cockaded Stranger

These rare woodpeckers often live in homes inherited from their grandparents and protect their nests with a novel weapon — pine sap.

By Henry Chappell

We waited in a clearing amid 80-year-old shortleaf pines. Eastward, the boles rose dark and perfect against the dawn sky. We were listening for red-cockaded woodpeckers, one of Texas’ rarest birds. So far, none had joined the morning conversation. Donna Work, my guide for the day, laughed softly and said, “They get up later than everyone else.”

A harsh wuck-a-wuck-a-wuck-a erupted 50 yards behind us. “Pileated woodpecker,” Donna said. My inner hunter-gatherer asserted himself. I’d never seen a pileated woodpecker. If the red-cockaded woodpeckers weren’t cooperating, perhaps we could ease back for a look at one of their big, raucous kin. But Donna kept glassing the woods ahead. Right. Back to work. (Yes, I was working. And running at least a quart low on coffee.)

Without my noticing the transition, the pine boles had changed from black to reddish-gray. The new sun lighted swarms of insects and the waist-high understory of dense herbaceous cover and blackberry tangles. August in the Pineywoods.

I heard a soft, raspy shripp. Donna pointed toward a cavity tree 40 yards out. “Ah…there!” She seemed relieved. An answer came from nearby. I glassed limbs and trunks. This was prime time, the quarter hour when the birds leave their roosts and move about the cavity trees before dispersing to forage. I noticed for the first time a silver-dollar-sized cavity hole, perfectly centered, 20 feet up the trunk of a pine.

We watched and listened. The little woodpeckers continued calling and pecking softly. Bits of bark fell. Donna, a Texas Forest Service biologist, had captured and banded many of these birds, but on this morning they didn’t show themselves.

“Ah…there!” She seemed relieved. An answer came from nearby. I glassed limbs and trunks. This was prime time, the quarter hour when the birds leave their roosts and move about the cavity trees before dispersing to forage.

A few minutes later, as we approached another open stand of pines, we heard the familiar calls. “That’s right. Come on out and fuss at us,” Donna said. “Come check us out.” Finally, a bit of movement. A bird flew out of the branches and back through the trees, undulating in the familiar woodpecker pattern. Something flittered among the boughs. A small dark bird lit on a branch, then walked down the boll. Definitely a woodpecker. There was no mistaking the profile. It kept to the shadows, then moved to the far side of the tree. Seconds later, it skittered back into view. Dark back. Bluebird-sized. Good so far. It moved into sunlight. I caught a flash of red just as the bird disappeared again. Or had I seen light playing off the reddish-brown branch? You wouldn’t see red cockades from 30 yards away. A downy woodpecker, perhaps? But those calls came from red-cockaded woodpeckers. Donna seemed satisfied. The calling faded into the woods.

Back at the truck, I wondered if I had actually seen a red-cockaded woodpecker. Probably. But that flash of red bothered me. I closed my notebook. I’d just have to make another trip to be sure.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers, commonly known as RCWs, were once common in the mature longleaf pine forests of the Southeast, from East Texas to Florida, northward to southeastern Oklahoma and eastward to Virginia. According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates, the longleaf pine ecosystem once covered about 90 million acres and supported more than a million RCW family groups. In Texas, RCWs occupied suitable habitat throughout the Pineywoods. Precipitous RCW population declines began in the 1880s and continued through the 1930s due to heavy logging and land clearing for agriculture. By the 1960s, when legendary TPWD biologist Dan Lay began warning of dangerous RCW declines, the longleaf pine ecosystem had been reduced to about three percent of its former size, and only about 10,000 RCWs remained in isolated clusters in the U.S. The USFWS listed the RCW as endangered in 1970. Federal protection began in 1973 with the passage of the Endangered Species Act.

No doubt, naturalist Alexander Wilson had in mind the ribbons or “cockades” that adorned hats in 1810 when he gave Picoides borealis its common name. Adult male RCWs sport tiny red patches on the sides of the crown, along the edge of the white auriculars. However, don’t rely on the cockades for identification. They’re virtually invisible unless the bird’s head feathers are raised during bathing or territorial disputes. Juvenile males have varying amounts of red in the center of the crown, but this isn’t the cockade, and it disappears as the bird matures.

Adult RCWs average about 8 1/2 inches in length, with prominent white cheek patches, black cap, white breast and belly with broken black stripes along the sides and flanks, and a black-and-white barred back. Inexperienced birders sometimes confuse the RCW with more common woodpeckers. “Beginners often remark about how easily they saw the red on the bird’s head, which makes me believe that they instead saw a downy or a hairy woodpecker,” says TPWD Nongame Ornithologist Cliff Shackelford. “And folks often misidentify downy woodpeckers that come to bird feeders. A red-cockaded woodpecker would never come to a feeder.”

Unlike most other woodpeckers, which make cavities in dead trees or dead parts of live trees, RCWs excavate nesting and roosting cavities in live southern pines. While other birds drill their cavities in a few weeks and often make new ones every year, an RCW family may take up to 12 years to complete a cavity. “That means you’re going beyond the lifespan of an individual bird,” says Richard Conner, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and senior co-author of The Red-cockaded Woodpecker. “In some instances a bird’s grandfather will have started the nest cavity that a young bird will inherit from its father.” Although RCWs seem to favor longleaf pine, they’ll use other species, including loblolly, slash and shortleaf pine. Regardless of species, the tree must have enough heartwood to contain the roosting chamber. That means trees at least 60 years old. The birds prefer pines infected with red heart fungus, which softens the heartwood.

Unlike most other woodpeckers, which make cavities in dead trees or dead parts of live trees, RCWs excavate nesting and roosting cavities in live southern pines. While other birds drill their cavities in a few weeks and often make new ones every year, an RCW family may take up to 12 years to complete a cavity.

What do RCWs gain from all of their hard work? In a word, resin. Tree-climbing snakes avoid it because it gums up their scales; dead trees don’t produce it. In fact, one of the surest ways to identify an active RCW cavity is by the fresh sap running down the bole above and below the cavity entrance. The birds freshen the sap-producing wounds or “resin wells” around the entrance daily.

Biologists often describe ideal RCW habitat as open and “park-like,” with little midstory. Historically, these conditions were maintained by frequent fires caused naturally by lightning strikes or set by Native Americans. The fires burned away encroaching hardwood brush while the fire-resistant longleaf pines thrived — as did RCWs, bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, Bachman’s sparrow and other open forest species. On the forest floor, fire stimulates herbaceous growth which serves as nursery cover for the insects RCWs eventually pluck from trees. Later on, heavy logging removed existing and potential cavity trees, and fire suppression encouraged thick stands of hardwood brush that gives predators access to RCW cavities. Typically, RCWs abandon a tree when the surrounding midstory nears the height of the cavity entrance.

RCWs live in groups of two to nine birds consisting of a single breeding pair and several male helpers — usually sons of the breeding male. Helpers share incubating duties, feed the young, make new cavities and defend their area from other RCWs. When the breeding male dies, one of his helper sons may replace him. Every member of a group roosts in a separate cavity.

A “cluster” consists of a group’s cavity trees plus an area of approximately 200 feet around those trees. The cluster plus the surrounding foraging area — about 125 acres in good habitat — comprises the group’s territory.

RCWs nest late April through June. The breeding female lays 2 to 5 white eggs in the nesting cavity. At night, the breeding male incubates the eggs, which hatch in 10 to 12 days. Newborn nestlings are altricial (blind, naked and helpless) but grow quickly, fledging in 24-27 days. Adults may continue to feed the fledglings for as long as six months.

RCWs are primarily insectivorous, though they occasionally eat seeds and fruit. The birds flake away and probe beneath bark, pulling in insects and larvae with their long, extensible tongues.

In recent years, thanks to effective management and enlightened forestry, RCW populations have increased over much of their range. “The bird is definitely doing better, mainly because of federal work being done on federal lands,” says Cliff Shackelford. “In 1988, when the tracking started, there were 184 active groups in Texas. In 2002, there were 342.”

All four of the national forests in Texas — Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Angelina, and Sabine — boast RCW clusters, a total of 277 as of 2002. Sam Houston National Forest, with 164, holds the most. “We’re very fortunate here in Texas to have large contiguous acreages that we can manage for RCW habitat,” says USFS biologist Bill Bartush.

Wildlife managers maintain and improve RCW habitat through prescribed burning, very selective cutting and mechanical mulching of hardwood brush. At times, they install artificial cavities. “Our focus is on long [logging] rotation, so that the trees get older,” Bartush says.

Donna Work and her colleagues at the Texas Forest Service also manage for RCWs. Both W. Goodrich Jones State Forest and I.D. Fairchild State Forest have several family groups.

Yet only a tiny fraction of the Pineywoods is public land. TPWD’s Landowner Incentive Program provides matching funds for wildlife habitat improvements which benefit endangered species, including the RCW. Property owners are beginning to respond. The 6,000-acre Cooks Branch Conservancy provides homes for 16 RCW groups. “It’s very important that landowners understand that if they decide to protect or improve habitat for endangered species, they can get a lot of assistance and guidance from Texas Parks and Wildlife,” says Sheridan Lorenz, the Cooks Branch family manager. “It’s exciting for us to be able to work very hard to keep that woodpecker there and increase its population. It’s now the greatest source of pride we have in that land.”

Through a combination of ecological and historical chance, the red-cockaded woodpecker hung on until science and our country’s developing environmental ethic could lend hope for recovery. One need only consider the huge, striking ivory-billed woodpecker to understand how easily we could have lost the RCW. The two species share serious vulnerabilities: Both are highly specialized; remove or significantly alter any major habitat component and they disappear. And though their needs differ, both birds depend on mature, commercially valuable timber.

Until early 2005, most ornithologists believed the last ivory bill died some 60 years ago. Now a few glimpses, a short, blurry film clip, and faint recordings of calls and drumming offer the thinnest strand of hope that a few ivory bills may still be with us, in the backwaters of eastern Arkansas. And elsewhere, if we’re very fortunate. (On remote tracts of Trinity, Neches and Sabine River bottomland not inundated by reservoirs, for example.)

We would do well to keep the ivory bill in mind even as the red-cockaded woodpecker makes a modest comeback. Hopefully, future generations of bird lovers will hear the RCW’s raspy call and spot its impossibly round cavity holes with much pleasure, and little surprise.

Hurricane Rita Impacts

When Rita slammed into the Texas coast last September, the hurricane’s winds damaged homes miles inland — including a few in the trunks of pine trees. According to Donna Work, one active cavity tree and two inactive cavity trees were snapped off in the Fairchild State Forest near Rusk. The Jones State Forest near the Woodlands lost only one active tree, but that cavity had been used the past two years for nesting.

Ron Mize, district wildlife biologist for the Angelina National Forest found two RCWs dead in the cavities of broken trees. Though confident that losses were relatively light, Mize remains concerned about birds flushed out of their cavities and into the storm. Spring surveys should yield a more accurate mortality estimate. Losses in the Sabine National Forest appear light as well. Biologists have already replaced the destroyed cavities with artificial cavities.

The damage could have been far worse. Because RCWs depend on trees weakened by red heart fungus, they’re vulnerable to high winds. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo destroyed 87 percent of the cavity trees and killed 293 RCWs in Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina, dealing RCW recovery a serious setback — and hastening development of the artificial cavity.

Details

  • Texas Forest Service <www.txforestservice.tamu.edu>
  • U.S. Forest Service <www.fs.fed.us>
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service <www.fws.gov>
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology <www.birds.cornell.edu>
  • For details on the Landowner Incentive Program and the Safe Harbor Program, contact: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, (936) 564-0234, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/land/private/lip/>

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