Baseball for the Birds: A New North Carolina Team Rallies Around an Endangered Species

Inspired by the Red-cockaded Woodpecker's resilience, the Houston Astros affiliate has chosen the bird to be its official mascot.

Once common across the light-filled, longleaf pine forests of the Southeast, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is now endangered—and has been for nearly 50 years. But baseball fans in Fayetteville, North Carolina, will soon see more of the elusive, checkered bird than they may have dreamed possible.

Last week, the city’s new minor league baseball team, the Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros, announced its chosen mascot and name: the Woodpeckers, inspired by the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The bird is well-known among Fayetteville residents; the area holds one of the last remaining strongholds of the longleaf pines, making it key habitat for a recouping Red-cockaded population. In fact, Fort Bragg, a nearby active military base, hosts the second-largest population of the species nation-wide.

The team’s unique name has been almost two years in the making and comes just in time for its first spring training. The selection process was largely democratic. Back in April of 2017, the Fayetteville community cast a total of 1,300 votes on what they thought the club should be called, says Mark Zarthar, president of the now-dubbed Woodpeckers. His team narrowed the choices down to five, all of which represented the region in their own rights.

However tempting it was to pick the Fayetteville Fatbacks (a traditional part of southern cuisine and the no. 3 name choice) or the Fayetteville Jumpers (a nod to Fort Bragg’s paratroopers), Zarthar is glad the fans went with the Fayetteville Woodpeckers. The seven-inch headbanger, he says, is emblematic of the locals in a different way. “The [Red-cockaded Woodpecker] is a small bird, but it's tough and very resilient—evidenced by the fact that it's endangered but it's not extinct,” Zarthar says. “The city of Fayetteville is a small city, and it's very tough, too. People here have very strong values.”

The team’s logo, also newly unveiled, features a buffer, cartoon version of the bird. Kimberly Brand, Audubon North Carolina’s field organizer, says the design is fun and fierce while maintaining  the species’ distinctive white cheek patches and red tuft. Adding to the authenticity, the lettering is even peppered with woodpecker holes.

All these details amount to a wider effort to get the word out on the woodpecker’s struggle. “It shows the bird a lot of love,” Brand says. Though people may be aware of the Red-cockaded’s existence, they might be less sure of what its needs or roles are in the environment. Studies have shown that the species helps control insect populations and creates nesting cavities for other animals such as flying squirrels, Wood Ducks, and titmice. But all of that’s been in jeopardy since the woodpecker’s numbers hit a drastic low in the mid-1900s. As its coniferous habitat shrank due to logging and suppressed burn cycles, populations dipped to as few as two breeding pairs in some states. In result, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker became one of the first birds to be protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Federal and state agencies have banded together with nonprofits, scientists, and members of the public to save the iconic bird, largely by restoring longleaf pine in novel ways.

That said, if people had been asked to name a baseball team in the ‘70s, the Woodpeckers wouldn’t have been a popular choice, says Curtis Smalling, Audubon North Carolina’s director of bird conservation. The shift in public attitude toward the species speaks a lot to the value of conservation and community partnerships, he explains. In the past, environmental efforts and military interests clashed over Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, because a lot of it happened to overlap with Department of Defense sites. Restrictions implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 made it tough for the U.S. Army to conduct exercises on Fort Bragg and the surrounding Sandhills. In recent years, however, Red-cockaded populations have increased, thanks to the military’s involvement in monitoring and controlled-burn projects.

The woodpecker still has a while to go before it can be removed from the endangered species list. Current estimates show 15,000 birds from Virginia to Texas, Smalling says. Historically, the population was thought to top a million. But Smalling is optimistic that the species will continue to climb back. Partnerships like Audubon North Carolina’s Working Lands program, he says, empowers local people to enhance their properties to support Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and other priority birds with a number of cost-effective options. “It’s really been a success—a good example of how the Endangered Species Act was intended to work, looking for those common solutions,” Smalling says.

Zarthar, for his part, says the team hopes to partner with environmental organizations and partake in volunteering efforts down the road. But for the first Fayetteville season, he says they will focus on spreading the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s message on its social media channels and, of course, in the ballpark. From drilling a line drive down the third baseline or hammering a fastball into the stands, there’s certainly no shortage of woodpecker references to be had. 

The Fayetteville Woodpeckers' first home game is against the Carolina Mudcats on April 18. For some bird-on-bird action, watch them throw down against the Down East Wood Ducks in May and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in June.