Woodpecker swap meet
Come watch the unusual manner in which endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers are shared, recovered
Tallahassee, Florida — Will McDearman stood on a chair, raised his voice and beseeched the hundred or so wildlife officials gathered in a nondescript auditorium to offer up every woodpecker they could find.
“Are all the birds on the table?” he asked.
Murmurs of assent followed.
McDearman, like an auctioneer, then ended the bidding that joined woodpecker donor with woodpecker donee.
“Going once,” he said.
“Going twice,” he said.
“Sold,” he said.
Newton, Georgia — One, lonely male red-cockaded woodpecker lived at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in the late 1990s. He needed a mate. What to do?
The Jones Center, also known as Ichauway, the name of a nearby creek, is one of the Southeast’s premier private conservation and research preserves covering 30,000 acres in southwest Georgia. It was established as a quail hunting reserve in the 1920s by Robert W. Woodruff, the longtime leader of The Coca-Cola Company. Quail enjoy the same habitat as RCWs. Longleaf pines. Wiregrass. Fire-rejuvenated understory.
The Jones Center, established in 1991, has researched and near-perfected the restoration and management of the longleaf ecosystem that once covered 90 million acres from New Jersey to Texas. (It also focuses on aquatic ecosystems across the southeastern coastal plain.) Nearly two-thirds of the property is longleaf-dominant, the preferred habitat for gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes and other threatened or endangered species.
Like red-cockaded woodpeckers. In 1999, Ichauway began installing artificial cavities into pine trees as new homes for RCWs. Jones Center biologists attended the Southern Range Translocation Cooperative a year later and came home with a female bird to pair with the lone male. In all, Ichauway has translocated 81 woodpeckers and now tallies 31 PBGs. (There were 34 PBGs in 2018, but Hurricane Michael destroyed many cavity trees.)
“Translocation has allowed us to increase our woodpecker population exponentially,” said Brandon Rutledge, the conservation coordinator for the Jones Center. “It would not have been possible without the translocation cooperative.”
Rutledge stood amid hundred-year-old longleaf pines towering over a carpet of wiregrass, sensitive briar, partridge pea and narrowleaf pawpaw. The Turkey Woods, as the tract is known, is burned every two years. It’s quintessential longleaf habitat. Rutledge said Ichauway is now positioned to possibly donate RCWs.
“We could probably have 70 groups of woodpeckers over time,” he said as a half-dozen turkey poults foraged nearby. “We would like to expand into other areas on property and just let the birds disperse on their own.”
And, with that, another Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Southern Range Translocation Cooperative annual meeting came to an end.
“That was a very good meeting,” said McDearman, the woodpecker recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But now we have to decide if the price is right and who gets what.”
The avian version of a swap meet came at a most propitious time. The Service is considering de- or down-listing the federally endangered woodpecker, a significant accomplishment that owes considerable credit to the army of federal and state and nonprofits who’ve helped recover the bird. Each summer, the wildlife officials gather in Tallahassee to decide which southern refuges, national forests and military bases are sufficiently woodpecker-ed to donate to insufficiently woodpecker-ed locales.
And various wildlife management areas, state parks and forest preserves make their case for why they should receive the birds. McDearman — the Monty Hall of the woodpecker world — then helps decide who gets what, which then leads to the delicate, laborious and costly task of capturing woodpeckers in one place and releasing them in another.
“There’s a huge passion about this bird,” said Ralph Costa, the Service’s second woodpecker coordinator who established the translocation group in 1994. “It’s not a mega-fauna like a wolf or a grizzly bear or a sea turtle. But the bird is really cool — its sociology, its biology, it’s ecology. And there is a lot of demand for this bird. The cooperative meeting is a party, a woodpecker party.”
It’s not all fun and games, though. In years past, when supply didn’t meet demand, things could get testy with one forest or preserve competing against another for the prized birds.
“People would call people out about their bird management and their habitats — or the lack thereof,” said Jonathan Stober, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Alabama. “There’d be horse-trading and side deals. It made for good theater. But it wasn’t necessarily best for the birds.”
Once dwindling, now thriving
Red-cockaded woodpeckers once roamed 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest stretching from New Jersey to Florida to Texas. As the forests were cut for timber, turpentine, peanut fields and urban development, the birds suffered. Commercial, fast-growing loblolly pine supplanted much of the old longleaf habitat, much to the displeasure of the woodpecker. The wildfires that once rejuvenated the forests were quickly snuffed out, allowing thickets of shrubs and hardwoods to replace the open-canopied fields of longleaf and grasses that the birds coveted. Today, maybe four million longleaf acres remain, although longleaf is making a comeback.
The woodpecker, a smallish black-and-white bird with males sporting red marks on their heads, was listed as endangered in 1973. At the time maybe 3,000 “potential breeding groups” — a PBG is an adult female, an adult male and a younger helper or two — survived. Today, more than 7,000 PBGs thrive, prompting the Service to consider removing federal protections for the bird or downlisting the bird’s status to threatened (with some protections remaining). A decision is expected in 2020. A determining factor: whether state and federal agencies, conservation nonprofits, military bases and private landowners will maintain or grow their woodpecker populations if the bird’s status changes.
The Service manages the woodpecker’s recovery. Large tracts of federal land — Apalachicola and Osceola National Forests, Fort Stewart, Camp Lejeune and Eglin Air Force Base — are prime RCW habitat and home to thousands of birds. The feds, like many states and nonprofits, strategically burn woodpecker habitats and plant longleaf pine. They install artificial cavities for the birds and clamber up old pines to insert the wooden homes into the trees. They also “translocate” birds from one forest to another. Each summer, in Tallahassee, they decide which birds get new homes at the Southern Range Translocation Cooperative.
Matching donors and recipients
“Hey gang, welcome back,” announced McDearman to the biologists on the first day of the RCW swap meet at the Florida Forest Service headquarters. “You are the best. Everything you do is absolutely incredible. It’s not easy. So thank you for what you do.”
McDearman, 67, has run the woodpecker recovery program for the last decade. Slight, with graying hair, the bespectacled wildlife biologist hails from Mississippi and previously worked to recover gopher tortoises, beach mice and black bears.
McDearman’s goal, as matchmaker, was to smooth the translocation of subadults from places with large or stable populations to places with small or vulnerable populations. It’s Woody Woodpecker meets The Dating Game with McDearman as host. First up, the donors. Each presented PowerPoint maps, graphs and tables of woodpecker locales, population trends, translocation numbers and frequency of prescribed fire.
Contestant No. 1: The Apalachicola National Forest, which boasts the world’s largest population of RCWs. The forest has donated 915 woodpeckers since 1989. Even after Hurricane Michael roared through in 2018, destroying 472 cavity trees, the bird population grew from 830 PBGs to 845 PBGs, mostly in response to the installation of more than 690 artificial cavities after the hurricane. Apalachicola offered 10 pairs of birds to the co-op, five less than the previous year.
Contestant No. 2: The Osceola National Forest, blessed with good weather and many hands to insert cavities, tallied 152 PBGs. Monica Folk, a wildlife biologist and RCW contractor for Osceola, offered 10 pairs of birds, as did Fort Stewart and Eglin.
“We’d love some good groups to come and take our birds,” she said. “If they come, it will be a gravy train. This year was phenomenal.”
In all, seven donors — six from Florida — promised 47 pairs. But would that be enough to satisfy the woodpecker ardor of the 30 potential suitors? The Savannah River Site in South Carolina wanted three pairs. The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida requested five. The Moody Forest Wildlife Management Area in Georgia wanted two. Each made a detailed, at-times impassioned plea for birds. McDearman grilled potential recipients like Perry Mason at the bar.
Hunter Folmar was making his first-ever request for woodpeckers to come live at Babcock Ranch Preserve in southwest Florida. He was nervous. He wanted two pairs. McDearman wanted answers. How many acres are suitable for woodpeckers? What types of trees? How old are they? Is this a one-time request? Once every two years? McDearman put Folmar’s request to a vote.
“All in favor of Babcock being a new recipient raise your hand?”
Many arms shot up.
“Congratulations,” McDearman said, “you’re a new recipient.”
But there was a catch: Babcock had to accept three pairs of woodpeckers.
A relieved Folmar later said, “It’s a really interesting process. I don’t know of anything else like this. Next year should be a lot easier.”
Supply and demand
Day 2 of the great woodpecker swap was drawing to a close and McDearman faced a dilemma, albeit a pleasant one. He had 47 pairs of birds to give away, yet only 44 were, initially, wanted. Would supply outpace demand? Was the translocation cooperative a victim of its own success?
“I just want to get rid of the birds,” McDearman said, tongue somewhat in cheek.
That wasn’t a problem in years past when birds were few and land managers had specific conservation goals that dictated how many woodpeckers would inhabit a forest and when.
“Recipients would compete against one another and argue and debate and nobody had an easy path,” McDearman said. “It got ugly.”
Added Joe Reinman, a St. Marks biologist the last 40 years: “It used to be blood and guts. Now, it’s too easy.”
McDearman credits good habitat management and steady cavity construction for the woodpecker’s revival. He also noted that many of the usual recipient groups have tallied 30 PBGs and, therefore, are no longer eligible to participate in the cooperative. In the end, a few recipients agreed to take six more birds to match supply with demand.
“We may not need to do this as intensely anymore,” McDearman said.
Which would lessen the fun of the annual RCW swap meet, but underscore the progress the woodpeckers have made toward recovery.
“It’s worked like a charm,” said Costa, the former woodpecker coordinator. “We’ve had a lot of recipients and consistent donors. If not for the cooperative we would’ve lost a lot of birds. It’s a great story for all who’ve contributed the last 30 years.”
Dan Chapman, public affairs specialist
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