By Justin Jacques

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is getting a lot help these days.

The bird is thriving at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina – and that refuge, several others and numerous partners are collaborating on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Recovery Initiative (CRI) effort at Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp Refuge.

Carolina Sandhills Refuge, home to the largest concentration of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Refuge System, has documented steady population growth in the past seven years.

At the time of the European settlement of North America, more than 1.5 million red-cockaded woodpeckers could be found in mature pine tree cavities across the Southeast. Today, wildlife experts estimate that about 1 percent of that number remain in the wild, and only in a shadow of the bird's former range, which extended from New Jersey to Florida to east Texas.

Wildlife biologists say the key to red- cockaded woodpecker recovery is preserving rare longleaf pine habitat, which has been reduced to less than 3 percent of the estimated 90 million acres at the time of European settlement. Unlike other woodpeckers, this species excavates its nests and roost cavities exclusively in mature living pine tree cavities, so habitat management to provide mature trees and open, park-like habitat is essential.

Carolina Sandhills Refuge regularly conducts prescribed burns to restore and maintain the health of its longleaf forests. Effective habitat management provides homes not only for red-cockaded woodpeckers but also for other plants and animals, including 30 federally threatened or endangered species.

Over five weeks last spring, the refuge banded more than 272 young woodpeckers found in 120 nests. After finding two new breeding groups in 2015, the refuge now hosts 147 groups of the endangered bird, each containing two to six individuals. The birds live in family groups, usually a breeding pair and a “helper,” typically a male offspring of the breeding pair.

“We've been monitoring woodpecker numbers every year since 1970, when the species was first considered endangered,” says Carolina Sandhills Refuge manager Allyne Askins. “Because our population is so large, we don't have to band the woodpeckers, according to the Service's 2003 red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan. We do it so we help the species as a whole.”

In recent years, the refuge has provided other conservation agencies with juvenile woodpeckers in hopes of increasing the species' population beyond the refuge's 46,000 acres. In 2001, the refuge began a five-year collaboration with The Nature Conservancy's Piney Grove Preserve to reintroduce the species to Virginia. Last January, biologists at the reserve counted 67 individual woodpeckers in 14 groups, numbers that indicate the population is self-sustaining. But that is Virginia's only breeding population.

The CRI has funded a project to establish a second viable red-cockaded woodpecker breeding population in Virginia, at Great Dismal Swamp Refuge. The refuge and adjacent lands in Virginia and North Carolina are part of the Northern Essential Support Zone for this species. The project team installed artificial cavities in established cluster sites. Three pairs of juvenile red-cockaded woodpeckers from Carolina Sandhills Refuge and one from another site were transported to Great Dismal Swamp Refuge. In late October 2015, the four pairs were released from their new cavity trees at sunrise and are living in pond pine pocosin habitat. Red-cockaded woodpeckers had not been seen in at Great Dismal Swamp since the 1970s. Their nests are being monitored to gauge success.

“What we do is very rewarding work,” says Askins. “The birds respond to our habitat management efforts by forming new groups, and that shows the population is moving in the right direction. Every new group is a success on the long path to recovery.”

Justin Jacques is a senior at George Washington University in Washington, DC.