Pecking their way back, one dead-tree cavity at a time

A housing crisis is gripping the southeastern United States, and the homeless tenants aren't your usual citizens. They're woodpeckers, and they're endangered.

The shy, 7-inch-long red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) has been on the endangered-species list for more than 25 years because of loss of habitat. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are only about 4,950 breeding pairs left in the US.

The close-knit woodpeckers keep the same mates for life. And young males stick around for years to help out with siblings.

The abode of choice for these woodpeckers - and it has to be a good one since they don't migrate - is the longleaf pine tree. They prefer pines that are 70 to 90 years old because the heartwood of aged pines is sap-free.

Some estimates say that only 5 percent of original longleaf pine forests still exist today.

But thanks to the efforts of state parks and Safe Harbor programs, the RCW, as it's affectionately known, has found allies.

Tom Arrington is one. The ecology-unit supervisor at Blackwater River State Forest in the Florida Panhandle has seen the population there creep back from 22 to 33 RCWs two years ago to 56 today.

Part of the reason is better management and high-tech resources - such as the global-positioning systems that track birds. Mr. Arrington says foresters use the GPS system to follow the bird and download the data collected into a computer program. They then use this information to create maps and management plans for the woodpecker.

The maps give foresters a better idea of where to put their man-made "cavities." More than 50 Western red cedar nests have been placed in trees, and more than half are now being used.

Arrington says that the Blackwater River State Forest is in the second year of a five-year plan. By the year 2003, the aim is to have 30 active pairs of woodpeckers in the 190,000-acre forest.

These foresters aren't the only ones on a mission to save the RCW. The Apalachicola National Forest bordering Tallahassee, Fla., and Egland Air Force Base in Louisiana have large populations that are under management.

Even in the Carolinas, habitat is being restored. By the end of 1998, more than 23,000 acres of land in North Carolina had been enrolled in Safe Harbor agreements, where everyone from golf courses to private-forest owners took measures to save the RCW.

In South Carolina, 15 private landowners offered nearly 84,000 acres of land to the safe harbor program in 1998. By doing this, they agreed to take steps such as controlled burning of undergrowth and installing artificial nests.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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