Working for Woodpeckers

By Sneed B. Collard III

On a balmy, pre-covid morning in June 2019, I arrived at the W.G. Jones State Forest at 5:45 a.m. There I was met by an enthusiastic biologist named Donna Work. Why? So that she could teach me about one of the world’s most intriguing birds, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, or RCWOs, once occupied an immense swath of pine forest stretching from New Jersey to Florida, and west to Texas and Oklahoma. Since the early 1800s, however, human activities—including logging, farming, damming, and urban sprawl—have whittled the birds’ favored long leaf pine habitat from between 60 and 90 million acres down to about three million acres. Not surprisingly, RCWO populations plummeted from approximately 1.6 million family groups, or “clusters”, to an estimated 7,800 clusters today. In fact, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was one of the first birds to be listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Remarkably, a few RCWO clusters can be found only a short drive from Houston, at the W.G. Jones State Forest.

A Woodpecker like No Other

A 30-year veteran of the Texas A&M Forest Service, Donna Work has helped manage the woodpeckers at W.G. Jones since 1996. She had warned me that we needed to get there early for the best chances of seeing the birds before they dispersed for their morning foraging and, sure enough, we almost missed them. As we caught a brief look at one adult RCWO high above us, however, Donna explained that Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have several unique features that set them apart from other woodpeckers—and make managing them a challenge. 

“They’re the only woodpecker in North America that builds roosting and nesting cavities in live trees. Other woodpeckers use dead trees or take over a cavity built by other woodpeckers, but building in live trees is a good strategy because the running sap deters rat snakes and other predators climbing up from below.”

While other woodpeckers can excavate a hole in a matter of hours or days, however, RCWOs can take an incredibly long time to set themselves up. “There’s a lot invested in the cavity,” Donna said. “The birds prefer larger, older pine trees because a lot of those have a fungus called red heart rot, a disease that softens the heart wood of the tree.” That makes it easier to carve out the hole. At Jones State Forest, trees need to be at least sixty years old to reach the size that the woodpeckers prefer.

Another key behavior that sets RCWOs apart from most other woodpeckers is that they live in close-knit family groups consisting of a breeding male and female, and between zero and four juvenile males. Because of the birds’ unusual family dynamics, biologists count and manage the birds as groups rather than individuals. While young females usually disperse to other locations in the hopes of starting their own families, young males often hang around their parents to help out with provisioning and protecting the young. This gives the males a more prolonged survival education—and a “beak up” if the alpha male breeding position suddenly becomes vacant.

Housing Crunch

Donna explained to me that each RCWO group needs at least 75 acres of mature open forest to survive. “And what’s better for them is more like 100 or 125 acres,” she continued. “We have four family groups here at W.G. Jones. We’ve had more in the past, but now we have four.” Unfortunately, Houston’s inexorable spread has isolated the forest, creating a number of difficulties.

Inbreeding is a particular threat. The forest used to be connected to the larger Sam Houston National Forest to the north, but development between the two forests has rendered that travel corridor hazardous at best. “We’ve gotten some of their birds,” Donna said, “and I believe they’ve gotten one of ours from time to time, but it’s harder for the birds to travel here.” To overcome this problem, Donna and her colleagues periodically bring woodpeckers from other sites to boost the genetic diversity of the birds living at W.G. Jones.

To further help the birds, Donna’s team installs “pre-fab” nest cavities for the woodpeckers. Each RCWO has to have its own hole for roosting and/or nesting, and because the cavities can take so long to excavate, woodpecker housing comes at a premium. “It takes these birds about a year or more to build a cavity—several months if they really get after it,” Donna explains. “But in thirty minutes someone can climb up there with a short-bar chainsaw, cut out a rectangle, and pop that thing in there. So that’s been a big management tool because it gives the birds a ready-made home.”

To maintain the open, savannah-like conditions that the birds need, biologists also light controlled burns to clear away underbrush, but this has grown more difficult because of the smoke the fires produce. Not only does it impact the homeowners pushing up against the forest, but the smoke can interfere with traffic on Interstate-45 only a mile away. That means that forest crews often have to remove brush mechanically or apply herbicides to knock down yaupon, oaks, and other vegetation that would eventually drive out the woodpeckers.

Worth the Effort

Despite the challenges of keeping the woodpeckers at W.G. Jones, for Donna and her colleagues, the effort is worth it. Even their small number of birds serve as support populations for the Sam Houston and Crockett National Forests, as well as for RCWO populations on other state forests and private lands. The woodpeckers, in turn, attract birders from around the world. “I’ve met people who come here solely to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and check it off their lists. Then they get right back on their next flight to go see something else,” Donna told me. 

The forest, though, has even larger roles to play. By protecting the woodpeckers, W.G. Jones protects dozens of other species. As we stood hoping for a better look at the RCWOs, we could hear Pine Warblers, Northern Cardinals, and Carolina Chickadees around us. Reptiles, amphibians, and mammals thrive here, too.

W.G. Jones also serves as an important educational center for visiting school groups and teachers eager to learn about Southeast Texas’s natural landscape. The woodpeckers are a vital part of that education and one of the things that makes the forest more than just another patch of trees.

Meanwhile, Donna and her team continue to work toward the woodpeckers’ survival. This spring, be sure to set aside some time to visit W.G. Jones one morning. Chances are you’ll find Donna and her colleagues checking nest holes, banding nestlings, or just observing one of our country’s most remarkable avian citizens. 

Author’s Note: In 2020, the year after my visit with Donna, three of the four family groups at W.G. Jones successfully bred, producing seven chicks that are all believed to have fledged. Nationally, RCWO populations have increased to the point where the US Fish & Wildlife Service has recently proposed lowering their status from Endangered to Threatened. Click here to read the de-listing proposal.

Sneed B. Collard III lives in Missoula, Montana, but joined Houston Audubon after birding here with his son. He is the author of more than 85 children’s books including Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs and his newest picture book, Waiting for a Warbler. These and his other books can be ordered from your favorite independent bookstore or online. Sneed is a popular speaker at schools and conferences, and you can catch him in person at this fall’s HummerBird Celebration in Rockport. Learn more about Sneed at www.sneedbcollardiii.com and follow the birding adventures of him and his son at fathersonbirding.com.

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