Species Worth Saving

Why we should be thankful for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

A red-cockaded woodpecker eating a well-earned Thanksgiving feast
A red-cockaded woodpecker eating a well-earned Thanksgiving feast.

Photo by snowmanradio via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/Wikimedia Commons

Humans are really good at killing things. We always have been; it’s kind of what we do. The fossil record shows that whenever humans reached a new landmass for the first time, we slaughtered everything that couldn’t get away. Any large, juicy, poorly defended species went extinct about two weeks, geologically speaking, after Homo sapiens washed up on their shores.

In Europe, we wiped out woolly mammoths and cave bears. In Australia, giant kangaroos and giant wombats. In South America, glyptodonts (which looked a bit like gigantic armadillos) and giant sloths. And in North America, mastodons, tapirs, ground sloths, and more. We even eliminated the sabertooth cat, American cheetah, and American lion. We used to have our own cheetahs and lions!

And always, always, we killed off a bunch of birds. The dodo in Mauritius, the moa in New Zealand, the Carolina parakeet in North America. One of the most depressing books ever published is this gorgeous monograph of extinct birds, with hundreds upon hundreds of species.

We ate the big and flightless birds, usually to extinction. We stole eggs from breeding colonies of puffins until there were almost none left in the United States, shot hawks and eagles for sport, and slaughtered millions of herons and egrets for plumes to decorate hats. (Just a reminder: Fashion is stupid.) We chopped down the trees ivory-billed woodpeckers lived in. And our parasitic fellow-travelers—cats, rats, dogs—drove species to extinction on islands around the world.

But the most unexpected thing happened about a century ago—we started to stop. Commercial pigeon hunting wiped out passenger pigeons so swiftly that people still living had vivid memories of the tremendous flocks of passenger pigeons that used to darken the skies. “There was a sense of loss when there were no more wild birds,” says Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. People horrified by the inconceivable decline of North America’s once most common bird and the carnage of the plume trade pushed for the first laws and treaties to protect wild birds.

Passenger pigeons persisted in captivity for a few years in three haphazardly managed populations until Martha, the last of her kind, died 100 years ago. You can see her at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, on display with other specimens of North America’s extinct bird species—the great auk’s beady taxidermied eyes staring at museum visitors in grim reproach. There’s nothing like seeing the Carolina parakeet’s faded, once-vibrant colors to make you feel the loss of it.

But there’s another kind of display you can go see these days: Living birds that ought to be extinct but amazingly, improbably, thankfully are not. They are alive thanks to science, strong laws, education, ingenuity, and heroic efforts by biologists, foresters, government agencies, and everybody who ever put up a bluebird box in his or her backyard.

California condors, population 22 a few decades ago, soar over the Grand Canyon thanks to an elaborate capture and captive breeding program that involves feeding chicks with hand puppets, teaching them to fear power lines, and getting California to outlaw lead bullets that were causing released condors to die of lead poisoning when they ate carcasses. People dress up in bird costumes and teach whooping cranes to fly after ultralight aircraft to lead them to new wintering grounds. Conservation biologists and an endless supply of volunteers slide around on guano-slick cliffs to put up decoys, mirrors, and loudspeakers to lure murres, puffins, and other birds to safe new breeding territories.

It’s utterly absurd, the measures people take to save endangered animals. It’s also the most touching, inspiring, selfless, redemptive thing we do as a species.

My favorite example of a heroic long-term effort is the project to save the red-cockaded woodpecker. (Pronounced cock-ADE-ed; a cockade is a jaunty ornament worn on a hat, in this case a red patch on the male woodpecker’s head, not a plume ripped from the carcass of a gorgeous snowy egret.) I’d been reading about the red-cockaded woodpecker since I started birding about 25 years ago, and this month I finally went in hot pursuit. 

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are clever, socially adept, and adorable. They build nests by excavating cavities in old pine trees in the Southeast, which was a great evolutionary strategy until people chopped down 97 percent of their habitat. Here’s another great evolutionary strategy, one that has held up better: Snakes are some of their most dangerous nest predators, so the birds peck the pine trees’ bark to make sap ooze down the tree trunk. The slick of sap stops snakes and protects the nest cavities above. And they’ve got strong family ties on their side: Fledglings from one clutch stick around the territory to help their parents raise the next clutch of chicks.

The problem, of course, is that even when you stop turning every pine tree in a forest into timber or turpentine, it takes a long time for trees to grow big enough to support decent-size nest cavities. And underbrush in the forests these birds evolved in was periodically cleared out by fire, which is now usually suppressed, leading to forests that are too dense for the birds.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was one of the first birds protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and people have been trying to bring its numbers up ever since. The first thing to do was stop chopping down their nest trees, and the ESA protected the birds’ critical habitat. Millions of acres of national forest, national wildlife refuge, military installations, and state lands are now managed for the benefit of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Some large pine trees are allowed to grow to nest-cavity size, and planned fires keep the forest from getting too dense. The Fish and Wildlife Service has established “safe harbor” agreements with private landowners, including timber companies, to encourage them to protect red-cockaded woodpeckers on their property.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers aren’t particularly troubled by people. They establish colonies right by roads. In Francis Marion National Forest, one territory has a rifle range on one side (BLAM BLAM BLAM from dawn to dusk) and a cycle trail on the other (not for bicycles, as I originally thought, forgetting for a moment that I was in South Carolina, but for motorcycles and very loud off-road vehicles grr-grr-grring along sandy pine forest trails).

Their territories aren’t hard to find in Francis Marion: Trees the woodpeckers have started cavities in are marked by the forest service with two bands of white spray paint on the trunk and a tie of bright flagging tape. “We need managers to not accidentally cut cavity trees,” says Will McDearman, who coordinates the species recovery project.

During breeding season, biologists remove chicks from the nest at seven days of age and put bands on their legs to help keep track of the population. They capture young female and male birds from different groups and release them as new breeding pairs to create new colonies in suitable habitat.

But what has really made a difference is artificial nesting cavities. “They’ve virtually saved the species,” McDearman says. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo swept through Francis Marion, which was then home to the largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The storm toppled nesting trees like matchsticks. “In 1990, the situation was dismal,” McDearman says.

The red-cockaded woodpecker recovery team experimented with artificial cavities and quickly figured out the best technique. Biologists carve a nesting cavity and entrance tunnel out of a block of wood, climb 60 feet up a suitable pine tree, through a haze of mosquitoes and biting flies, cut out a slice of the tree, insert the block, then seal it back up. The entrances have metal “restrictor plates” around the opening to prevent the much larger pileated woodpeckers, who routinely commandeer red-cockaded woodpecker cavities, from blowing out the opening to make it wide enough so they can fit through. Another nice touch: When the biologists install new cavities, they coat the lower part of the tree with resin to mimic the bird’s strategy of releasing pine pitch to keep snakes away.

The team began adding nesting cavities throughout the red-cockaded woodpecker’s range, and these cavities have been the largest contributor to a population boom in the past 20 years. “They are desperate for cavities,” McDearman says. The birds’ numbers have been increasing at a rate of 4 to 5 percent every year and there are now 7,200 active territories. Francis Marion, with 400 of those territories, has already “surpassed our recovery population size objective,” McDearman says.

I spent a few days hiking and kayaking in Francis Marion, desperately searching for a red-cockaded woodpecker, and after scanning enough clumps of spray-painted, flagged nesting trees, I finally saw a family of them. They were off a dirt road deep in the forest, close to a swamp. It was the first time I’d ever seen the species, which meant I’d sighted a “life bird”—a triumph for any birder. The birds were hopping about high in a stand of pines, pecking in a perfectly woodpeckerly way, showing off their definitive field mark, a white cheek patch. They were the most beautiful birds in the world.

So, anyway, this year I’m thankful for the hundreds of foresters, biologists, and other recovery team members who work directly to track, band, drill nesting cavities, and set fires for the red-cockaded woodpecker. And for the people who manage Air Force bases, golf courses, and ranches for the benefit of this sociable, white-cheeked, 9-inch-long bird. And for everybody who advocated for environmental legislation and the politicians who passed it and the government agencies that enforce it. Mostly I’m thankful that we as a species recognize—not always too late—that other species are worth saving.