Do endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers know what’s at risk? Sure, if I strike out on Tinder or eHarmony.com, I’d be pretty frustrated, probably gloomy. For these rare woodpeckers, not pairing up has high stakes.
The soft, melodious social calls of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers were absent from Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for over 40 years. That is, until last fall, when biologists trucked eight six-month-old birds from the Carolina Sandhills refuge in South Carolina and the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in North Carolina to the southeast Virginia pine pocosin forest.
Biologists tucked birds into their new digs, pre-dug artificial cavities 30 feet high in native pines, and at sunrise, pulled screens from in front of their cavities to set them free. The release marked the first significant step in the multi-year effort to establish Virginia’s second population and the northernmost public outpost of one of the country’s first federally endangered birds.
Now, most of us are pretty familiar with “the birds and the bees.” We know if the birds don’t link up, there are no chirping little ones to be found. And with no little ones, there will be no future birds, and no population. So, biologists waited with anticipation until this past spring to see what these cardinal-sized woodpeckers would do.
“Two birds paired up over the winter, but they didn’t breed, which isn’t completely off the wall for first year birds,” says refuge manager Chris Lowie. “Three males flew off, leaving three females that have been establishing their own territories.”
Enter phase two. On the night of October 21, biologists at Carolina Sandhills refuge finished trapping four males and four females. They started the five hour drive north, stopping every hour to feed the birds. In the dark hours of early morning at Great Dismal Swamp, they again tucked the young birds into new homes. A couple dozen volunteers waited in excitement, poised to assist with the release at sunrise.
When the light came, the screens came down and the birds were free to check out their new neighborhoods.
“All birds seemed happy,” Chris says. “They paired up and were talking to each other right from the start. Let’s hope they all stay!” Weeks later, on November 14, biologists brought two extra males north for the three females already at the refuge.
Here’s where “pairing up” gets interested with the red-cockaded woodpecker. This territorial bird stays put (doesn’t migrate like many of our birds) and forms groups that include one breeding pair and up to four “helper” birds. Those helper birds are typically males, and they help incubate eggs and feed young.
Previous endeavors to reintroduce the birds in Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida have been successful, with the birds populating and reproducing in these areas. At Great Dismal Swamp, biologists are closely monitoring the translocated birds, which were released from their cavities Thursday morning. Additional translocations and releases will continue once a year for a minimum of three years.
Virginia’s only existing population is at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex County, where the population has grown from 11 birds in 2002 to 67 adults in spring 2015. Having a new breeding colony “will help protect the Virginia population against loss from catastrophic events such as disease and storms, and put the bird on the track to recovery,” says Lowie. So…swipe right woodpeckers!
Partners in the Great Dismal project include the Service, The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, North Carolina Department of Transportation, J. Carter and Associates, and other local groups. Funding for the effort comes from the Service’s Cooperative Recovery Initiative, which focuses on restoring threatened and endangered species on national wildlife refuges and surrounding lands.
Check out other recent efforts:
- NC’s Calloway Forest Preserve
- Relocations from the largest population to Florida’s National Forests
- Prescribed burns to restore habitat neighboring VA’s only existing population).