A rare bird's stronghold in Longleaf pine forest
By Damian Smith
Gainesville, Fla., Feb. 23, 2015 – The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is truly a one-of-kind species and served as my gateway into conservation. It is the only woodpecker species in the world to make cavities in live trees and one of the few bird species found only in North America.
But the longleaf pine ecosystem (Pinus palustris) is necessary for the red-cockaded woodpeckers, and the decimation of this habitat has caused this woodpecker’s population to crash.
The longleaf pine ecosystem once dominated the Southeastern US, including most of Florida. The early Spanish explorers in the 1500s described being able to walk for days in an uninterrupted sea of grass and long needle pines. Shaped by frequent fires in the late spring and summer, it looked more like an African Savannah than a typical forest.
The regular fires and vast area covered by longleaf pine created unique, diverse habitats for numerous plants and animals, many found exclusively within the bounds of that ecosystem. Unlike other pines species such as slash or loblolly, its ability to survive in wet flatwood to dry upland habitats makes a forest dominated by longleaf pine an excellent choice for a variety of land-uses: wildlife, hunting, timber.
But this isn’t the image most people visualize when they think of the Southern forest; instead, landowners, cattlemen, hunter, and city dwellers today imagine a hardwood forest with infrequent fire. The fire exclusion and destruction of the longleaf pine forest began after the civil war and led to the construction of the southern forest most people now see outside their houses. Today’s forests have caused problems for many unique creatures found in longleaf pine forests, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, which saw its fortunes rise and fall along with the longleaf’s.
As the longleaf pine forest declined so did the red-cockaded woodpecker populations, eventually leading to it being listed as a federal endangered species. Current populations are estimated at 1 percent, 12,500 birds, of the orginal population size. It stands only about 8 inches with a wingspan of 14 inches and weighs 1.5 ounces. Only the males possess the red “cockade” behind the eye, with both sexes exhibiting black and white bars, a black crown and white cheeks. The territorial, non-migratory bird species lives in family groups averaging three to four animals, with a territory typically 125 to 200 acres in size.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers exhibit a strong preference for mature longleaf pine over other southern pine species. It spends one to three years making a single cavity in a tree with red-heart rot, a fungus that affects the tree’s heartwood, in which it excavates nesting holes, drilling smaller holes to drain pitch. Groups live in loose colonies in clusters consisting of one to 20 cavities. Producing these cavities is difficult, so they aggressively defend their territories from other competitors rather than move.
The red-cockaded woodpecker’s clusters where they live experience regular fire, with the best habitat marked by large-diameter mature pines, an open understory with few scrub oaks ( also known as Turkey oak) and low shrubs to choke out the native grasses.
The grasses are crucial for spreading the fire and maintaining an open understory, which provides the birds with plenty of insects. The birds’ cavities, combined with frequent fire, create plentiful habitat for small mammals, reptiles and insects after the woodpeckers abandon them. Larger woodpecker species, such as red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, will take over and enlarge a cavitiy, eventually increasing the openings to later allow wood ducks, fox squirrels, raccoons and eastern screech owls to nest.
A red-cockaded woodpecker’s presence in a longleaf stand indicates a healthy, productive and well-managed landscape, which protects the native biodiversity and provides for our other natural resources needs.
About the author
Damian Smith has worked in both academic and government natural resource management programs with the US Forest Service, Northern Research Station and North Carolina Plant Conservation. He is happiest when he can split his time between prescribed burns, research and land management. Contact Damian Smith with questions at 850.339.5047.