Within a week of May 17’s Endangered Species Day, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Conservation Biology to place ID bands on the youngest—and most endangered—residents of the Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve.
Each spring the two organizations collect the newly hatched red-cockaded woodpeckers and place unique number and color bands on their legs to track them throughout their lives. These birds represent nearly 14 years of success in forest restoration efforts that help conserve this species and the pine forests on which the woodpeckers, other wildlife, and people depend.
“Holding one of these chicks in your hand is like holding a seed while you’re standing at the base of a 250-year-old pine tree,” said Brian van Eerden, Southern Rivers program director for the Conservancy’s Virginia chapter. “How can something so frail give rise to an old-growth forest? How is it that a wobbly and completely helpless woodpecker chick can take flight within a few weeks? They’re a great example of the miracle of life here at Piney Grove.”
Historically, more than 1.5 million woodpeckers occupied the southeastern United States, extending from Texas to New Jersey. As the result of dramatic habitat loss over the past 400 years, only 1 percent of the original population survives in fragmented, older-growth forests. The last remaining population in Virginia occurs only on The Nature Conservancy’s 3,200-acre Piney Grove Preserve. Since The Nature Conservancy’s acquisition in 1998, the property’s woodpecker population has tripled to its current size of 51 adult birds.
This season, CCB expects to band 24 nestling birds, all aged between 7 and 10 days old, marking another good year of productivity for the preserve. The biologists climb ladders to access 30- to 50-foot high nest cavities and use special devices to gently remove nestlings. The biologists then weigh the birds and fit them with the bands, before returning them to their nests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker species in North America that makes its home exclusively in live trees.
“The bands do more than just give us a chance to monitor population size,” said Mike Wilson, research biologist for CCB. “Because the Piney Grove population of red-cockaded woodpeckers is relatively small and isolated, it has the high potential for genetic inbreeding over time. However, tracking the genetic relatedness of the population informs us on whether new individuals need to be introduced into the population to ensure genetic diversity and therefore a healthy population.”
After habitat loss, the next greatest threat to red-cockaded woodpeckers is the suppression of forest fires. The species thrives in mature and open southern pine forests, which become inhospitable without fire to clear the underbrush that clogs them. The Nature Conservancy and partners conducted a 738-acre controlled fire on the Piney Grove Preserve this month, in part to ensure that the chicks and other wildlife will have the open, park-like habitat they need to thrive.
“It’s important to remember that shortages of older pine habitat hampering species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers are problems that time can fix, if there’s a forest base to work from,” van Eerden said. “We have that in spades in southeast Virginia with some of the state’s most extensive and economically productive forestlands. The challenge is making older-growth management of this forest base more appealing to land owners. Red-cockaded woodpeckers and other wildlife are counting on us to figure that out.”
Continued conservation of the red-cockaded woodpecker population at Piney Grove has been made possible in part by financial support from Norfolk Southern Corporation, a leading advocate for the conservation of southern pine savannas. The largest red-cockaded woodpecker population on private lands is on 13,000 acres owned by Norfolk Southern near Charleston, S.C.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Lindsay Renick Mayer
301-897-8570, ext. 224