News coming out of Fort Jackson at the end of 2018 centered not on graduate numbers or military budgeting, but on a bird measuring about 8 inches and weighing less than 2 ounces. The red-cockaded woodpecker has experienced drastically shrinking numbers since Europeans first set foot in the New World. Roughly 5,600 family groups exist currently, compared to millions a few hundred years ago, reports Doug Morrow, chief of the Directorate of Public Works’ Wildlife Branch.
The red-cockaded woodpecker’s dwindling population is primarily due to the fact that the longleaf pine ecosystem has been reduced by 97 percent, reports Nicole Hawkins, wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson. The reduction in habitat resulted in an equal reduction in the red-cockaded woodpecker across the Southeast.
The tweetable good news as 2018 ended was that “we’ve increased the population significantly,” shares Doug. Specifically, rising numbers of the officially “endangered” birds, protected as a result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, are due to conservation efforts on Fort Jackson.
In recent years, the 52,000-acre U.S. Army Training Center has worked to restore the red-cockaded woodpecker’s primary habitat. In fact, since 1994 close to 7,000 acres of longleaf pine have been restored through conservation efforts. In addition, existing habitat across 40,000 acres has been managed to restore this ecosystem through thinning timber, prescribed burning, and planting of native warm season grasses.
Explains Nicole, underbrush is also kept low to improve the bird’s habitat. Plus, artificial cavities serve as nesting homes for red-cockaded woodpeckers.
These birds are unique among North American woodpeckers because they excavate their cavities in living pine trees. This process has been shown to take seven to 11 years for the woodpeckers to create them naturally. “By providing artificial cavities, we speed this process and provide them with the roosting and nesting cavities that are required,” says Nicole.
She adds that there are 41 potential breeding groups with just one breeding female and male and helper offspring from previous years. These helpers do not breed but instead assist in the nesting process through incubation, brooding, and feeding of the young. Also, at least 150 eggs were laid and more than 80 are known to have hatched. Of those, 72 were branded for tracking purposes.
This year’s statistics represent record highs for the birds, shares Nicole.
And, the broadleaf pine ecosystem is essential for other species, adds Doug. He maintains: “We are the stewards and want to get the species off the endangered species list.”
These red-cockaded woodpecker nestlings were banded around 7-10 days after hatching. Biologists at Fort Jackson climbed the tree, pulled them out, brought them to the ground, banded them, and then returned them to the cavity.