National Wildlife Refuge System

Endangered Woodpeckers on the Road to Recovery

A red-cockaded woodpecker with a juicy catch perches near a nest in a tree cavity. A colony of the endangered birds will be re-introduced to Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

April 24, 2015 - Red-cockaded woodpeckers flout usual woodpecker rules. They feed and nest in live trees, not dead ones. They hang out in groups, rather than flying solo.


But these traits haven’t kept their numbers from shrinking as their old-pine habitat has dwindled. This loss of habitat and changes in forest management practices have led to the decline of this species throughout its range. Now, with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the birds have a new opportunity for recovery.


A plan to reintroduce the endangered birds at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, where they have not been seen since 1974, aims to boost the nationwide population. Great Dismal Swamp would be the state’s second population and the only one on public land. It would also be the northernmost outpost of the eastern birds, now concentrated largely in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.


Having a new breeding colony “will help protect the Virginia population against loss from catastrophic events such as disease and storms, and put the bird on the track to recovery,” says Chris Lowie, refuge manager at Great Dismal Swamp. The red-cockaded woodpecker was a common species throughout the pinelands of the southeastern U.S., from New Jersey to Louisiana. By the time of listing of the species in 1970 under the Endangered Species Act, fewer than 10,000 were scattered throughout its former range.


One CRI project will produce a population of captive-reared emerald dragonflies at Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, IL, to augment the wild population and preserve high genetic diversity.
Credit: John Cabbott

This project is one of 14 across 18 states being funded through the Service’s Cooperative Recovery Initiative (CRI) to help recover threatened or endangered species on or near national wildlife refuges. In addition to the woodpecker, species meant to benefit from this year’s funding of $5.8 million include a Midwest dragonfly, a tiger beetle and a Southeast pitcher plant.


Since 2013, the CRI has funded 38 projects totaling $16.4 million. Other species that have benefited include the whooping crane, Karner blue butterfly, Wyoming toad and Attwater’s prairie-chicken. These projects also provide other conservation benefits to other imperiled species and encourage a diversity of partnerships.


Relocating five mating pairs of the woodpeckers will take dexterity. In October, biologists will clamber up tall trees at the host site to collect 10 birds — five male, five female. Then they will drive the birds to the relocation site, stopping to feed them hourly. On the same day, at the new site, they will climb trees again to place each bird in a pre-dug artificial cavity. Then they will place a screen over the cavity and wait. When biologists hear the birds call to one another the next morning, they will remove the screens and monitor the woodpeckers’ activity, all in an effort to acclimate them to their new home.


Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in mature pine forests, where trees may be 60 to 100 years old. The birds nest and roost in tree cavities that they dig and maintain. Around the cavities, the birds peck holes that weep resin. The resin protects eggs and young against snakes and other predators.


Prison inmates in the South Puget Sound area of Washington State are helping with a CRI project to propagate golden paintbrush seeds and help restore native prairie. Military veterans process seeds, manage seed farms and propagate plants at a native plant nursery in the area.
Credit: USFWS

In the Southeast, pine forests are often harvested — for wood and paper products — before they are old enough for the birds. Mature pine forests also depend on periodic fire to clear out undergrowth and allow seeds to germinate. Wide-scale fire suppression has also reduced the size and health of these forests.


Great Dismal Swamp Refuge contains mature native pine forest, including some 2,000 acres of pine pocosin habitat; a deep-soiled evergreen marsh that support longleaf pine trees. The refuge, says Lowie, “has good habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, but no longer has the birds.”


Partners in the woodpecker project include several Service offices plus The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and other local groups.


Three previous endeavors to reintroduce colonies of the birds — in Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi — have all been successful, with the birds populating and reproducing in these areas.


There is more information on the 2015 projects and previous years here.



Last updated: April 24, 2015