The Thing with Feathers

Red-cockaded woodpecker populations are growing in southeastern Virginia.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

Early in June, two young birds took flight from a nest in Sussex County. There might have seemed nothing remarkable in the event, in a season when countless fledglings across the Commonwealth set forth on unpracticed wings. But for these red-cockaded woodpeckers—one male and one female—that departure from the nest marked an exciting step forward in a years-long effort to restore the federally endangered species’ population in Virginia. 

Unlike the familiar, showier pileated woodpecker, with its scarlet-crested pompadour, the red-cockaded woodpecker sports (and is named for) a far subtler feature: a small and barely visible streak of red feathers on the upper cheek of the males. Otherwise, these birds are a study in stylishly understated black and white. If you want to see them, however, don’t go looking for them at your backyard feeder. In Virginia, they can be found only in two locations in the far southeastern part of the state: on protected lands in Sussex County and in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Historically, the species’ range extended north to New Jersey, explains Sergio Harding, a non-game bird conservation biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). But the birds are habitat specialists, living only in pine savannas, which are characterized by stands of widely spaced, mature longleaf pine trees over an open understory kept clear by frequent outbreaks of fire touched off by lightning strikes. Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest and roost in the pines, excavating cavities in the trees over months or even years, says Harding, first excavating through the bark, then through the sapwood—waiting for the sticky sap that is released to harden—and then finally into the heartwood. They are the only woodpecker species to excavate cavities in living trees, and once they have completed the excavation, they’ll peck holes around the entrance to maintain the flow of pitch as a deterrent to climbing rat snakes, a primary predator.

It’s estimated that open pine savannas once covered some 90 million acres of the southeastern and south-central U.S., supporting a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. But with the arrival of European settlers, these lands were gradually timbered, cleared, and fragmented by development, while wildfire suppression practices allowed the growth of the hardwood understory, which eventually, says Harding, leads the birds to abandon an area. As a result of this habitat destruction and disruption, red-cockaded woodpeckers have been extirpated north of Virginia. And by 2002, only two breeding pairs remained in the Commonwealth, in Sussex County on Piney Grove Preserve, protected land owned by the Nature Conservancy. 

Since then, a collaborative effort between the Nature Conservancy, VDGIF, the Center for Conservation Biology, and Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation has focused on restoring the woodpeckers’ numbers. (A similar effort is underway in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, where woodpeckers have been reintroduced with birds relocated from stable populations farther south.) The effort has been successful enough—by 2017, the number of woodpeckers at Piney Grove had grown to more than 80 individuals—that in 2010, VDGIF acquired adjacent property, establishing the Big Woods Wildlife Management Area to provide new habitat for the expanding population. 

In 2017, an excavation cavity was discovered in Big Woods, evidence of what is known as a “pioneering event,” says Harding, “where a male bird associated with an existing group sets out for a new area and excavates a new cavity.” In 2018, that male paired with a female, but the two did not appear to breed. But in the spring of 2019, the conservation partners made the exciting discovery that eggs had been laid. By May, there were nestlings. And in June, those nestlings fledged.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are unusual among birds in that they are “cooperative breeders,” living in family groups that include a breeding pair plus several helpers that will “help with the whole nesting cycle,” says Harding, including excavating cavities, incubating eggs, and feeding the young. Of the two birds hatched this spring in Big Woods, Harding says it is likely that the female will disperse in search of a mate, while the male may remain with the parents as a helper for the next year’s brood or until a “breeding vacancy” opens in a nearby territory. 

For now, however, the conservation partners are celebrating this important success. “This was a huge milestone for us,” says Harding. Sometimes hope truly is the thing with feathers.

To support this and other habitat restoration projects around the state, and to obtain an access pass to Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas, visit the Restore the Wild page at DGIF.Virginia.gov


This article originally appeared in our October 2019 issue.

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