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Recovery: Saving a Woodpecker Through Research & Ingenuity

Ted Williams, a member of the LandCAN board, writes a great article on the recovery of the Red-Cocked woodpecker.

In the six-county region of south-central North Carolina called the Sandhills, Dr. Jay Carter, Kerry Brust and I hiked through wiregrass to a towering longleaf pine. As twilight settled over the forest, woodpecker 806119838 dipped down from the sparse canopy, emitting a satisfied-sounding roosting chuckle as he popped into a hole atop a long, white sap stain.

Brust pressed a long-handled net over the hole while Carter made “claw sounds” on the bark with a stick. The bird shot into the fine mesh, then shrieked and bit as Brust held him and Carter replaced the bands — red and blue on the right leg, blue on the left.

The date was October 5, 1995. Brust and Carter, both of North Carolina State University, were part of a federal, state, NGO and private-landowner partnership desperately trying to save the critically endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), so named for a hidden scarlet splash on each side of the male’s cap.

It was not going well. In the recent words of Jeff Marcus, who directs RCW habitat restoration for The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina Chapter, these were “the bad old days.”

The pines that RCWs nest in (mainly longleaf) evolved with fire. So heat resistant is longleaf bark you can lay a piece on your hand, blast the top with a blowtorch and feel nothing.

Natural fire — carried through the trees by wiregrass — knocked back underbrush that would otherwise have given predators access to RCW cavities. But in the scraps of longleaf forest that remained after logging for ship masts, pitch, turpentine and lumber, fire suppression by humans further suppressed RCWs.

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