Operation Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

In North Carolina, an endangered bird finds a foothold on military land.

The deafening whir of helicopter blades echoed through the crisp fall air in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Standing knee deep in a carpet of dry wiregrass, I gazed upward through towering longleaf pines. The terrain is a remnant of the vast ecosystem that once stretched across the entire southeastern United States. Less than three percent of the original 93-million-acre pine forest remains. But ironically, it was the military that helped preserve this habitat and bring an endangered bird back from near extinction.

photo of red-cockaded woodpecker
In the 1970s, environmental groups began warning that the red-cockaded woodpecker could face extinction if active measures were not taken to preserve habitat. Photo by USFWS.

I had come to Fort Bragg to learn about the red-cockaded woodpecker, or RCW for short. A cockade is an ornamental feather or ribbon worn on hats popular during the early 1800s, when naturalists first classified the species. The adult male bird has a few wispy, red feathers between his white cheeks and black crown. Females lack the cockade.

I paused at a tree with double white bands painted around its trunk. Jackie Britcher and Janice Patten, civilian biologists at the Fort Bragg Endangered Species Branch, extended the interlocking aluminum sections of the “peeper” pole and poked the attached camera into a hole high above the ground. A nocturnal flying squirrel looked sleepily into the lens — as if to say, “Please leave me alone” — as we studied the image on a handheld screen. Although a RCW nesting site might remain in use for decades, we had come upon an abandoned cavity, which now provides secondary habitat for other wildlife.

The Carolina Sandhills region was once a particularly favorable habitat for the RCW, which constructs nest cavities in old-growth longleaf pine trees. The area’s high frequency of lightning strikes promoted numerous low-intensity fires that removed the undergrowth while leaving the trees intact and allowing new pine seedlings to emerge. During the 1800s and 1900s, however, habitat destruction occurred on multiple fronts. Logging and agriculture removed trees. The widespread practice of bleeding longleaf pine for turpentine and tar products rendered trees useless for RCW nest building. Although the bled trees were left standing, they eventually died. The RCW requires the large amount of heartwood rimmed by the softer, outer sapwood of a mature tree, and will not build a nest in a young, dead, or decaying tree. It is the only woodpecker species that requires a living tree.

In the 1970s, environmental groups began warning that the red-cockaded woodpecker could face extinction if active measures were not taken to preserve habitat. They identified the Sandhills area, and Fort Bragg in particular, as one of the areas most conducive to boosting breeding populations. A military installation is often an island among surrounding communities and agricultural land, and such is the case with Fort Bragg. As the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem became increasingly fragmented across the Southeast, the military base unwittingly kept it intact for its feathered neighbors. The lack of clear cutting and the deliberate setting of fires in military training exercises allowed the RCW to subsist in its natural habitat.

In consultation with Fort Bragg, the US Fish and Wildlife Service developed a plan for RCW recovery with several suggested actions, including prescribed burns. In 1989, Fort Bragg came up with its own novel idea to enhance the habitat and encourage breeding.

The Endangered Species Branch started identifying desirable trees, pre-drilling openings into the trees, and inserting sturdy wooden boxes, essentially mimicking a nesting cavity that would ordinarily take the birds several years to build themselves. It didn’t take long for pioneer birds to find the trees and move into the new prefab housing units.

As if she had memorized the locations of all the trees in the forest, Patten, who heads the “cavity program,” took me to a tree that had one of these unique bird condos. Lest I think that the human construction crew does all the work and the lazy birds relax in style, Patten quickly explained that the birds’ work isn’t done. The Fort Bragg program merely enables them to get a head start. The birds must perform ongoing maintenance on their homes. Throughout their entire residency, the RCW pecks holes in the living sapwood. This stimulates the flow of pine sap which runs down the tree and covers the bark. The slippery coating deters snakes and other predators from climbing up the tree.

Biologists term the woodpeckers “cooperative breeders.” One male-female pair nests in the tree and produces babies, but helper birds make the cavity, feed the young, and guard the territory. These helper birds are usually male siblings from a previous brood who remain on site. They roost in separate nearby cavities in a socially linked cluster. Indeed, the RCW’s approach to home building and child rearing is a community effort that exemplifies the qualities of persistence, resilience, and teamwork so well that the local minor league baseball team, the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, has adopted the bird as its name and mascot.

As we continued to hike through the dry grass dotted with bright blue pine gentian wildflowers, I saw the sap-coated pines that resembled giant, white candles in the forest. By the time I visited Carver Creek State Park later that day, I had become adept at spotting RCW trees from a distance. But I had yet to encounter a bird.

I did see some truly old longleaf pine trees. Park Ranger Jacob Fields explained that the pines stop gaining height at about 200 years old when their branches spread out to form a flat top. The trees can live as long as 400 years.

Formed from land donated by the Rockefeller estate and opened to the public in 2013, Carver Creek State Park borders Fort Bragg. Although each entity has its own staff and agenda, they both recognize the importance of coordinating their efforts at RCW habitat preservation. Nonetheless, most of the long-term decline of the red-cockaded woodpecker throughout its range has been on privately owned land. Reaching out to landowners, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s voluntary Safe Harbor Program provides services such as installing nesting cavities, conducting prescribed burns, and planting new longleaf pines.

Taking advantage of an unusually dry summer leading up to my visit, Fields and I bushwhacked into a thicker area that would normally have been too swampy to explore. We saw inkberry plants, bracken ferns, and a carnivorous pitcher plant with actual mosquito larvae, attesting to the incredible species diversity of the habitat. But as we were getting ready to leave, I suddenly got another ecological treat.

High overhead I heard a wheezy peep-uh, peep-uh, peep-uh that resembled the squeaking sound of a rubber duck squeeze toy. I smiled and moved along, knowing that red-cockaded woodpeckers were in the forest, making a home in their new houses.

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