The first time I saw a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, I was in southeastern Louisiana, chasing a ghost. It was early 2002, and I was with a group of naturalists tramping through the Pearl River Wildlife Refuge, following up on a reported sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by a lone hunter two years earlier. I’d written about that purported sighting for The New Yorker, and when I heard of the renewed search I headed back to the swamp with binoculars, a reporter’s notebook, and private dreams of birdwatching glory. This time around there was a team of top-notch birders, corporate sponsorship, a CBS camera crew, and a soundman from NPR who followed us into the swamp wearing headphones and holding aloft a great fuzz-covered boom.
Midway into our quest, an independent filmmaker—who, like me, was there on his own initiative—mentioned there were Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at nearby Big Branch Marsh Wildlife Refuge. Would I like to go?
I had long wanted to see “RCWs,” which are fascinating and endangered birds. There are only 15,000 to 18,000 of them, according to current estimates, down from perhaps a million and a half when European settlers arrived. Nevertheless, for a split second I found myself wondering if it was worth swerving from my search for the avian Elvis—a fairy-tale creature 20 inches long, with a three-inch, moon-white bill—to see a modest black-and-white bird smaller than a Hairy Woodpecker, which it somewhat resembles. Even the “red cockade” promised by its name is nearly invisible, and in any case appears only on the head of the male.
I would be in Louisiana for just a few days, I reasoned, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, though scarce, would stick around for my next tour. It is one of about 15 endemic species in the continental United States, which means it doesn’t migrate. Surely I could easily find such a bird again. As a thoughtless young man I used to visit my grandmother without bothering to call first, because she was always home.
Fortunately I was now old enough to dismiss such callow logic. It took no time at all to arrive at Big Branch Marsh, a refuge created in 1994 to help prevent development on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans. The refuge contains multiple habitats, moving from the sandy littoral of the lake through marsh and up to marginally higher ground, where I found myself standing among widely spaced pine trees, the open grassy understory maintained by controlled burns that the pines need to flourish.
Here there were no cameramen or microphones, no world-class birders, no water-lapped cypress trees the color of tarnished silver. A Pine Warbler sang somewhere high above. And there, making its way up the side of a sap-streaked pine, like a silent-movie actor jumping from frame to frame, was my first Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Seconds later it launched into the air, wings folded like a skydiver before the rip cord is pulled.
I may have dreamed of Ivory-bills, but the hour or so I spent watching that Red-cockaded Woodpecker and several others wound up being the high point of my trip.
Of course, my thrilling encounter might not have been possible if it weren’t for people like biologist Michael Keys, who has spent long, buggy days shinnying up pine trees and peering into Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests for federal land management agencies in the Southeast and as an independent consultant. Keys admires the tenacity of a bird whose population only 20 years ago had fallen to 7,000 individuals but whose numbers have more than doubled since then. “That’s nothing close to how common they were in the first place,” Keys says. “Still, they are an endangered species, and we’ve been able to bring them back from the brink of extinction—they’re an emblem of hope.”
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are truly extraordinary—even if you can drive down Boy Scout Road in Big Branch Marsh and find them just beyond the parking lot. For instance, they are among the few woodpeckers that chisel their homes out of living trees, not dead ones. Carving a satisfactory dwelling can take years, even though the bird, which favors longleaf pines more than 80 years old, often selects trees suffering from red heart fungus, which softens the center. The area around their nest holes is clotted with pinesap, a sticky trap for the insects they eat. Lower down, the birds strategically release reservoirs of sap that in breeding season can provide a line of defense against rat snakes slithering up to raid their nests.
More than 27 different animals make use of Red-cockaded Woodpecker holes, from frogs and flying squirrels to Great Crested Flycatchers and Wood Ducks. Which means the woodpecker is a “keystone species,” a one-animal habitat for non-humanity, though it won’t willingly surrender a nest unless a Pileated Woodpecker enlarges the hole or some other calamity befalls it. Otherwise, these woodpeckers’ carefully crafted nesting cavities often last more than six generations.
Cooperative breeders, the birds share the duties of parenthood with their extended families, employing several “helpers”—typically males born the previous season—to incubate the eggs, and feed and care for the chicks. Male and female birds split other duties equally. For example, by dividing the trees into foraging areas, with males scouring the upper region and females working below the crown.
In 1821 John James Audubon captured two male Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Louisiana, winging them with mustard-seed shot. (In those days the birds were so plentiful that Audubon noted it in his Mississippi River Journal when he didn’t see any.) He kept the birds in his hat while he continued to hunt, noting that every time he fired his gun, the two birds “uttered a plaintive cry.”
One of the woodpeckers died in the hat before he got it home—the heat, Audubon speculated—but the other survived. Placed in a wooden cage, the bird chiseled its way out and then scaled a bare brick wall “as if it had been on the bark of one of its favorite trees.” Audubon watched it eating spiders out of the cracks as it went. He noted the way the bird peered up under the crevices, and he painted the woodpecker in that attitude. He did not kill and pose the bird but rendered it from life, keeping it for two days before letting it go.
This says something about Audubon—who despite his quest for ways to animate dead birds in his art really did like to work from life—and something about the bird itself. The pleasure Audubon took in its release feels like an affirmation of the conservation efforts later undertaken in his name. He was, he wrote, “glad to think that it most likely would do well as it flew 40 to 50 yards,” adding with satisfaction that the bird “seemed much refreshed by its return to liberty.”
Audubon remarked on the bird’s “piney” smell, and indeed the story of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker cannot be told without also telling the story of a tree. This woodpecker has a special connection to the longleaf pine, which can live hundreds of years and is one of the great trees of North America. Stands of longleafs once covered 90 million acres stretching from Virginia to Texas and the northern two-thirds of Florida. The tree now occupies about 3 percent of that area. The birds’ plummet closely followed that of the longleaf pine, which was prized for its strength and straightness by naval shipbuilders. Over time, longleaf stands were replaced by short-lived, faster-growing trees, like the loblolly pine—if they were replaced at all. In most cases, the land was simply cleared.
Longleaf pines need fire the way other trees need water. Flames sparked by lightning strikes, and later controlled burning practiced by Native Americans, kept the trees well spaced and healthy, and allowed their seeds to fall into fertile soil rather than tangled undergrowth, where they would not germinate. Today controlled burning is being used as a conservation tool benefiting more than 30 endangered species, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which like a phoenix is being reborn out of those fires.
A few longleaf pines are scattered about at Big Branch Marsh, though the majority of trees are slash and loblolly pines, which means more care needs to be taken in the burning, since these species are less fire-resistant than their long-lived cousins. Still, the birds turn out to be less particular about their trees than previously imagined. Indeed the Red-cockaded Woodpecker population in southern Florida extends beyond the range of longleaf pines altogether.
The bird is also a forgiving species, amenable to the interventions of the humans who robbed its habitat. Artificial nesting cavities have been particularly helpful. A rectangular block of tree is cut out with a small chainsaw and a prefab cavity slipped in like a puzzle piece. It’s caulked and camouflaged, and even resistant to enlargement by bigger birds. Most of all, these stand-in dwellings spare the woodpeckers years of careful carpentry, leaving them with more energy for reproduction.
Adding to these efforts are the Safe Harbor Agreements that allow owners of private land to enter into partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pledging to maintain an endangered population on their acreage in exchange for protection from further land-use restrictions. There was a time when landowners would cut down their own trees rather than risk the government’s discovery of endangered birds. These changes have taken “cooperative breeding” to a new level, since along with avian partners, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker now has human “helpers,” from resort owners in North Carolina to U.S. Army personnel at Fort Bragg, which also works with Fish and Wildlife to protect the bird.
Sometimes calamity gives rise to creative conservation. Hurricane Hugo made landfall north of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989, killing nearly two-thirds of the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the Francis Marion National Forest—then home to the largest known population of the bird—and destroying a majority of their nests. The restoration efforts, which included the introduction of artificial nest boxes and the translocation of hatchlings from other states, not only secured the bird’s survival in South Carolina; they set the management pattern for areas like Big Branch Marsh.
Part of the romance of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers is that they represent a second chance, not simply for the bird but for us. They were listed as endangered in 1970 under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A bird driven almost to extinction by human intervention has given us an opportunity to save it through human intervention.
Keys, who was a college student when Hugo hit South Carolina, joined the restoration effort in 1990 and has been working on the bird’s behalf ever since, largely in the central Florida Panhandle’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and, as of September, in the Apalachicola National Forest. He is among a handful of biologists who band Red-cockaded Woodpecker chicks, install artificial nesting cavities, and set fires—the good kind.
Though he has seen the Red-cockaded Woodpecker vanish from Kentucky and Tennessee, Keys remains optimistic about the overall prospects for the species throughout its broader range, which sweeps north and east from Texas to Virginia.
Keys reckons he has placed perhaps 150 artificial nesting cavities a year in the St. Marks refuge, but for him controlled burning is the essential pillar of Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation. He likens the manmade nest holes and organized bird translocations to battlefield tourniquets that can buy the species more time, but he sees fire as the way the battle can be won. Controlled burning is not only essential for the bird’s survival, it has the potential to restore the vitality of the pine grasslands of the southeastern coastal plain. In that sense, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are what Keys calls an almost “perfect indicator” of the health of the habitat. “If you have Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, you’ve done something right.”
In 2005, three years after I visited the Big Branch Marsh refuge, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 70 percent of the nesting trees and reduced the population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers from 17 active clusters to 14. Once again, artificial cavities, translocation of young birds, and controlled burning have helped restore trees and bird numbers, which have crept back to near pre-storm levels. The population, however, won’t be declared healthy until it contains about 20 families—perhaps 80 birds. Katrina was a good reminder that even endemic species don’t wait around. All creatures migrate through time.
That I hesitated at all when I had the opportunity to see this remarkable bird is for me a humbling reminder of the work of birdwatching itself. Ivory-bills remain a beautiful dream. They have even made a concrete contribution to Red-cockaded Woodpeckers: the wireless video camera that Keys uses in Florida to monitor nestlings was designed by David Luneau, an Ivory-bill searcher, to peer into distant nest cavities without leaving the ground. But birdwatching means balancing Ivory-bills and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. It means chasing the mythical creature lurking always beyond the next tree, and stopping to study the rooted reality growing right in front of you, and the bird that—often with our help—manages to live miraculously inside it.
Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature and several other books. He wrote about the Sandhill Crane migration in the January-February 2013 issue.