A surprising conservation partner brought this species back from the brink, but their fate still hangs in the balance.
Georgia’s longleaf pine forests are home to many endangered species, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This resilient and unusual little bird is making a comeback from the brink of extinction thanks to an unexpected partner and recovery efforts, set in motion by the Endangered Species Act. But complicated rule changes and bureaucracy have put the protected status, and in turn the birds themselves, in jeopardy. This story comes to us from Producer Claire Reynolds.
Ari Daniel: BirdNote presents.
Tommy Hutcherson: We use fire as our friend, not as an enemy. At one time the longleaf forest covered all the way from South Florida to Virginia to Texas. There was over 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest and now we’re down to several million. And it needs fire to survive. They call it the tree that fire built.
Ari Daniel: I’m Ari Daniel, and this is Threatened. In this episode, we travel to Georgia’s longleaf pine forests — home to many endangered species, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This resilient and unusual little bird is making a comeback from the brink of extinction thanks to an unexpected conservation partner and recovery efforts set in motion by the Endangered Species Act. But now it seems that the fate of both the bird and the act of Congress lie in the balance.
This story comes to us from Claire Reynolds, reporting from western Georgia. Hey, Claire, it sounds like you’ve got a real conservation success story on your hands to share with us.
Claire Reynolds: Yeah, there’s a lot to celebrate here. And it’s complicated. Red-cockaded Woodpecker populations in many conservation areas have increased and it’s been a long, arduous task to get there. And the bird has been listed as endangered since 1969, when it was estimated that there were only about 10,000 birds left. It was actually listed as endangered four years before passage of The Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Ari Daniel: 1973, so that was Nixon?
Claire Reynolds: Yep, that’s right! Nixon is actually credited with launching the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental programs that are still at work today.
Ari Daniel: I had no idea that Nixon was such an avid environmentalist?
Claire Reynolds: Yeah, that surprised me too. And you know what’s neat about this, is that the Endangered Species Act was passed almost unanimously by Congress, which would be unthinkable these days. But you actually get a preview of what was to come from the Nixon administration in his 1970 State of the Union address:
Richard Nixon: The great question of the 70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings? Or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water? [applause]
Ari Daniel: Well, not all presidents have wanted to make peace with nature. Presidents and Congress have slowly chipped away at the power of the Endangered Species Act over the years. And we’re gonna hear more about that in a bit. But first, how has the Act benefited the Red-cockaded Woodpecker?
Claire Reynolds: Well Ari, the Endangered Species Act not only protects the bird from being harmed or taken from the wild, but it also can protect its habitat. And in this case, that habitat is the dwindling longleaf pine forest in the southeastern United States. And this longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America. So protecting the bird meant protecting the longleaf pine trees too. And it wasn’t really until the late 80s and the 90s that recovery efforts were developed and put into place.
Ari Daniel: And Claire, you actually got to see these woodpeckers in the wild, right?
Claire Reynolds: Yeah Ari, I did. And that would have been a really rare experience back in the 70s, when there were only about 10,000 birds left. And it was really quite moving to see an endangered species thriving in the wild and just a comfort to know that we can sometimes make amends for our mistakes. This is James Parker showing me around the Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat in west Georgia.
James Parker: The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers just lit in that tree right there. Hear them? There they come. See them flying there?
Claire Reynolds: Yes. Oh my gosh.
James Parker: Now they're in that tree.
Claire Reynolds: There are three of them.
Ari Daniel: Tell me more about these birds. What do they look like?
Claire Reynolds: So they’re not really very big. They’re about the size of a cardinal. And their heads have a black cap and white cheeks. On the cheeks the males have a little red spot - and that’s the cockade, You almost can’t see it. It’s really hard to tell the sex of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But that cockade is named after a ribbon that’s used to adorn a hat. What’s really neat about these birds is they have an unusual social structure. It’s called “cooperative breeding.” And it’s really more like cooperative child-rearing. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers live with an extended family of a breeding pair and that can stay together for possibly a lifetime even, along with one to four of their offspring who help them take care of their younger siblings until it’s their turn to breed.
Claire Reynolds: I was actually able to see this family of three because wildlife biologist Doug Linden put out the call for us.
Claire Reynolds: So this is the sound coming from your little handheld speaker there.
Doug Linden: It's just a recording of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. They make different calls. This one's a little bit more of an aggressive, “his is my territory” call. And that's what they're responding to: basically like, “no, this is mine.” So they're all three right there in the tree with the orange band on it.
Claire Reynolds: Conservation of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Longleaf pine go hand in hand. At least for now. And the fate of these little birds lies in the hands of a group of people that you might not expect. Here I am with James Parker again.
Claire Reynolds: And what are we hearing in the background? Sounds like artillery fire.
James Parker: That's a frequent noise out here. And that loud booms from tanks and artillery. But that's the main reason we have what we have here. What the military does is basically made this whole installation like a sanctuary. When you look at what's surrounding it, the second largest city in Georgia, Columbus on two sides of the installation, and then you come out here and it's mainly a wooded forest.
Claire Reynolds: Despite all of the conservation work going on here, “sanctuary” is not exactly the first word that comes to mind. This endangered longleaf pine ecosystem is managed by a surprising landowner — The U.S. Department of Defense. And this sanctuary is located at the US Army Garrison at Fort Benning, Georgia. James Parker is the Natural Resources Branch Chief here.
James Parker: You know, that's my number one job is to train troops, even though I'm a natural resource guy. I'm here to provide that training area and to provide and to find that common ground so that we can conserve our species and ecosystems on Fort Benning but also accomplish the military mission.
Claire Reynolds: Since the 1990s serious conservation efforts on behalf of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker have brought the bird back from the brink of extinction on military bases throughout the southeast, including Fort Benning. Garrison Commander, Colonel Matthew Scalia, is James Parker’s boss. And yes, Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was his dad.
Colonel Matthew Scalia: We are the most active army installation. I would say not just in US Army, but I would offer in the world. Okay, well, I just challenge anybody to take me up on that. But case in point, we fire more tank rounds here than on any other installation. We fire more small rounds here than any other installation. So the operations tempo here is very, very fast and heavy. There's multiple high risk training events that occur on Fort Benning daily. You know, it might be Ranger School, it might be jumping out of airplanes, it might be live fire maneuver training. So there's never a dull moment on Fort Benning.
Ari Daniel: Wait, Clare — how can a place that’s firing more tank rounds than any army installation anywhere be a good place for conserving woodpeckers?
Claire Reynolds: Right, well the Red-cockaded Woodpecker only nests in living pine trees that are at least 60 years old, but preferably 100 years old. And they prefer longleaf pines.
Ari Daniel: Oh my goodness, these birds sound like a real estate agent’s worst nightmare — like the pickiest of customers.
Claire Reynolds: Yes, they are so picky about the trees that they nest in. And most of the longleaf pine forests were cleared long ago for farming, or they were harvested for their timber or turpentine. So the old growth and second growth longleaf pine trees are really rare and most of them are found on military bases because they’ve been holding large swaths of forested land for a century or more — like Fort Benning, which was established in 1918.
Ari Daniel: Wow, that is wild.
Claire Reynolds: There are actually Red-cockaded woodpecker conservation programs in place at thirteen military bases in the southeast. It's a surprisingly destructive place for habitat restoration work, but there are human-caused threats to this bird that only humans can correct. And this need for continued habitat management means that the bird is considered to be conservation-reliant. And so they figured out how to bring this bird back by understanding the peculiarities of how and where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers build their nests.
Claire Reynolds: And someone who knows all about it is biologist Jeff Walters from Virginia Tech. He’s been studying their nesting habits and social structure since the 1980s and he’s learned how much the nest has to do with saving this bird from extinction.
Jeff Walters:Woodpeckers generally make cavities in dead wood. It could be a dead tree or it could be a dead part of a live tree. But Red-cockaded Woodpeckers make cavities in perfectly healthy pine trees. So that is really, really unusual. It takes them a very long time to do so. It takes years, whereas most woodpeckers would make a cavity in days or weeks at most.
Ari Daniel: So why would these birds go through so much time and trouble, Claire, to make a nest in a living tree?
Claire Reynolds: Well, they have a lot of predators climbing up the tree after them, including rat snakes. So, for the birds, it’s all about the sap, and that’s the sap flowing from a living tree.
Jeff Walters:What they do, is they — they've got their hole, their cavity, and then all around it, the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, pretty much every day, they chip into the sapwood, just a little bit, to make what are called resin wells. And the sap bleeds out of that. So you have a big layer of sap all around the cavity, and that stops the snakes from getting to the hole.
Claire Reynolds: With so few trees and so little time, some woodpecker families are working with a contractor.
Jeff Walters:If it takes 15 years to get yourself six good cavities together, obviously, that's not a good strategy. Even getting started with a few takes years. So they're looking for places that already have cavities. And what that means is that if you want to hold them in a place, you've got to replace cavities that are lost. And if you want them in new places, you have to put cavities there to draw them in. And now, that's what people do — they manage cavities. So that's the other part of being conservation reliant. Until the forests get old enough that they have lots of old trees to pick from so they can make their own cavities at a high rate, you're going to need to provide them with some artificial cavities from time to time.
Claire Reynolds: Installing those cavities can be tricky business. US Fish & Wildlife Service Biologist John Doresky started doing this work three decades ago.
John Doresky: There are men and women climbing trees, 30,40, 50, 60, sometimes 70 feet in the air to catch a bird to put a band on it. So just think about that. Seven ladders that you're going to schlep into the woods with all your other stuff —chainsaws, buckets, boxes, nails, hammers — unload all that stuff, start stacking those ladders, one on top of the other. And you're having to hold some while you go up. Because you don't want to keep coming down to get them.
John Doresky: You know, you get to some point on that tree and you're swaying with the tree. You're no longer fixed like you are at the base of the tree. Now there's movement and you're cutting branches out of your way to get to where you're trying to get to. And then you let go. And you just have your belt around the tree holding you there, and you have to let go. You need your hands, so you have to trust the belt.
Claire Reynolds: Sometimes Ft. Benning’s biologists are up on the ladders with chainsaws to insert artificial cavities in the trees, and sometimes they are there to band the hatchlings or to remove squatters.
John Doresky: Then maybe you catch them, maybe you don't. Maybe you get the box in, maybe maybe your chainsaw broke. Maybe a flying squirrel scared you, you know?
Claire Reynolds: The Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavities attract all kinds of secondary users. And Fort Benning wildlife biologist Tim Marston has come face to face with a lot of them.
Tim Marston: I had peeped the cavity, and I knew that there were squirrels in it. And so I was going to remove those squirrels. And so I climbed my ladder. And when I had climbed up, there's a safety chain that goes around it, I unknowingly knocked that safety chain loose. And so as I'm getting to the top of the ladder, I mean getting ready to, you know, peer into the cavity. those squirrels just started pouring out and just hit me in the face. Just boop boop boop boop. And I literally kicked the ladder out from underneath me. And so I look kind of like I was repelling, you know, it was kind of like woosh!
Claire Reynolds: Not all of the recovery work for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker takes place 40 feet in the air. The artificial nesting cavities have played a large role in saving the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But there’s a limit to what they can do... because there’s a limit to the number of potential cavity trees. Three percent of the original range of longleaf pine forest exists today. So, these remaining trees are endangered, too. And that’s because they were missing a crucial element:
Claire Reynolds: Fire.
Ari Daniel: When we come back, the longleaf pine forests are set ablaze at Fort Benning.
Ari Daniel: Welcome back. Once on the brink of extinction, the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker has recovered at a surprising location: the US Army Garrison at Fort Benning, Georgia. We’ll hear how that recovery brings into question what it means for a species to be threatened. But first, we pick up the story in the longleaf pine forest at Fort Benning, where after a century of wildfire suppression across the U.S., this military base is using fire to restore the longleaf ecosystem to its natural state. Producer Claire Reynolds is hanging out by the fire with Fort Benning Ops Specialist, Tommy Hutcherson.
Tommy Hutcherson: There are four woodpecker trees over here and the winds out of the Southwest, which is blowing right into our face. So we'll burn the closest one first than the one to the left of it. And then the two that are side by side.
Tommy Hutcherson: You know, we're doing it for ecosystem management. We're required by law to protect these birds. And there’s many benefits to the fire. We're gonna burn about 1200 acres today.
Claire Reynolds: Oh my god. So this is just the beginning.
Tommy Hutcherson: Yeah, yeah, yes, yes, yes. There's actually three different burn units that are being burned. There's three different burn crews in here. You're just on one small portion of the burn.
Claire Reynolds: So there’s another reason to do prescribed burning at an Army installation, and that’s to keep unintentional fires from starting — because the munitions used for weapons training on Fort Benning can start fires of their own.
Tommy Hutcherson: We use a lot of pyrotechnics, smoke grenades, flares, a lot of tracers, every third round that comes out of our guns are tracers, and that's a ball of fire going down through there. So we manage our forests with fire to keep the fuel loads down so when we do have a fire, it’s not a catastrophic fire like they have out west.
Claire Reynolds: So by this point, it just seems like there’s fire everywhere. The forest is obscured by smoke and there are rings of fire around these longleaf pine trees that have the orange bands around them, denoting that they’re cavity trees. And since the sap that’s flowing down from those cavities is flammable, Tommy Hutcherson and Doug Linden are continually extinguishing these fires that they’ve just lit to keep the flames from rising up the sap and into the woodpecker cavity. It’s a surprisingly peaceful scene.
Tommy Hutcherson: Our woodpecker population is thriving. We went from a hundred and something clusters in the early nineties to 400 plus now. You know, it's, it's a remarkable story — and a lot of it had to do with fire.
Ari Daniel: The population of woodpeckers at Fort Benning has tripled or even quadrupled! What does that mean for the birds, Claire?
Claire Reynolds: They’ve met their recovery goal on Fort Benning. The goal was to get to 351 breeding groups. And today, Fort Benning has about 412 breeding groups.
Ari Daniel: Ok, so that means they are officially recovered, right?
Claire Reynolds: Yeah, at Fort Benning specifically, the species is officially recovered. And it’s so official, in fact, that in September 2020, the then Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt traveled to Fort Benning to celebrate the successful recovery of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
David Bernhardt: It's a success story based on the tremendous efforts that installations like Fort Benning have played in managing their activities in a way that actually have allowed species to begin to recover and to come into a status that is no longer in danger of extinction. And that’s very, very significant. And what that means is going forward, we’re able to more narrowly tailor our requirements in a way that will create greater flexibility for the installation.
Ari Daniel: So if the Red-cockaded Woodpecker has a status of no longer being in danger of extinction, that means that it gets downlisted to threatened. And my understanding is that downlisting from the Endangered Species List is a good thing.
Claire Reynolds: Yea so, the recovery numbers are good news for the bird today, but the threatened status leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Like, how’s the funding change for conservation work moving forward? Biologists have already stopped banding birds now because they’ve made their recovery numbers. But if the birds aren’t banded, it makes it difficult to monitor them for population growth or decline in the future. Which will make it difficult to monitor population growth or decline in the future. John Doresky, who we heard earlier, is from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and he’s actually working on the downlisting proposal.
John Doresky: So how do I feel about the potential downlisting... pah, it's tough. So here's how I think about it. For so long as a practitioner— two decades, three decades — um, most of us live and die by the guidance in the recovery plan. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker recovery plan. That, that document is kind of biblical for most of us. Always has been.
Claire Reynolds: The recovery plan is a road map for getting an endangered species to a point where it no longer needs protections under the Endangered Species Act, and that’s the question that John and his colleagues at Fish and Wildlife are trying to answer. And this is tough because there’s no guarantee that once the recovery plan changes, the woodpecker will actually continue to recover.
John Doresky: This downlisting is a question of threat assessment. It's a different kind of analysis. What we're really saying is, currently, is it warranted to stay listed as endangered? So? So is there still the possibility of extinction in the foreseeable future? Our threat assessment currently, as it stands, obviously says no, because we're petitioning to go to threatened.
Claire Reynolds: With great success in bringing back some populations of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, there are still those who question if this downlisting is coming too soon. Attorney Ramona McGee from the Southern Environmental Law Center talks about their concerns for the future of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
Ramona McGee: This could be a really great conservation success story. The improvements in Red-cockaded Woodpecker numbers and management over the past decades is really a testament to the power of the Endangered Species Act. But the service is poised to just throw that away by prematurely claiming victory and removing those critical protections and oversight.
Claire Reynolds: Protections and oversight mean funding to do work that still needs to be done, like the prescribed burns and installing artificial cavities. The Endangered Species Act provided the carrot and the stick to ensure conservation. And while the recovery success at places like Fort Benning is encouraging, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Ramona McGee: Even though there are more overall Red-cockaded Woodpeckers now than when the species was listed as endangered in 1970, the distribution of those Red-cockaded Woodpeckers does not leave the species in a good place. The Fish and Wildlife Service's own science, its own analysis, detailed how 87% of all populations are at high risk.
Claire Reynolds: And it sounds like it's not just the Red-cockaded Woodpecker that conservationists need to keep an eye on. This has implications for other species as well.
Ramona McGee: [00:23:08] We understand that here in the Southeast under our Fish and Wildlife Service region, there is a quota in place to downlist, delist or preclude the need for listing 30 species a year. Which of course flies in the face of the Endangered Species Act and its requirements that we've been discussing to consider the best available science and to recover species. You know, that puts a heavy hand on the scale toward delisting and down listing decisions in a very harmful political way.
Ari Daniel: 30 species a year are going to be taken off the Endangered Species list to meet a quota, regardless of whether the species needs protection or not?
Claire Reynolds: Yep, that’s right. And this is just in the Southeast, so we don’t know if that’s happening in other parts of the country, but in the Southeast it’s 30 species a year. And to give some context, there are only around 1300 endangered species in the entire United States right now.
Ari Daniel: So where do things stand for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker?
Claire Reynolds: Well, there are many conservation groups calling on the Biden administration to roll back the changes to Endangered Species Act. And actually, there is an executive order in place to look at some of these changes. But, in the meantime, there are dedicated crews led by people like James Parker over at Fort Benning, who continue to do the heavy lifting to save this little bird — and to preserve the longleaf pine ecosystem in the few places where it remains.
James Parker: Sure, we’ve met the magic number of recovery. I'm glad we're there. I'm glad we surpassed it, but I'm more focused now on what's yet to come. You know, we still have work to do.
Claire Reynolds: There are so many wins on behalf of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and the recovery work on military bases like Fort Benning has brought the species back from near extinction. Yet the future of the bird still lies in the balance. The Endangered Species Act classification of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker will likely be decided later this year. But it remains a conservation success story worth celebrating, for now.
Ari Daniel: The Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s success is tied up with government intervention and all the rules, regulations, and politics that come along with that. In the next episode we’ll take a look at a migrating bird that’s found a safe place on private land to return to every summer.
Cornelius: I think that that Swallow-tailed Kite, I think it’s probably been about five to six years ago. I noticed them when they first came in. I was out cutting hay and it’s always getting tiresome. And all of a sudden, some of those kites flew in. Oh, they all just dive-bombed the grasshoppers.
This family isn't just creating a refuge for the Swallow-tailed Kites and other birds. They welcome bird watchers of all kinds to their property to observe and connect with nature.
That’s next week on Threatened.
This episode was produced by Claire Reynolds and me, Ari Daniel, and edited by Caitlin Pierce of the Rough Cut Collective. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final V2. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson with production assistance from Sam Johnson. You can find our show notes with additional resources, BirdNote’s other podcasts, and much more at BirdNote dot org. Thanks for listening, I’ll see you next time.