SHOULD BE AROUND FOR A WHILE
by Whit Gibbons
May 8, 2005
birds this week, or even ecology in general, without saying something
about the rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker would be a shameful neglect
of this majestic bird. The excitement generated by the single species
that has apparently defied extinction brings to the fore a fascinating
group of birds known as the woodpeckers, every one of which deserves attention.
200 species of birds belong to the family comprising woodpeckers. Representatives
occur on most major land masses of the world except for Australia and
Madagascar. Characteristically, woodpeckers have strong beaks for chiseling
into trees and extremely long tongues for reaching into crevices for insects.
Most have four toes on each foot, a pair pointing forward and another
pair pointing backward, serving to brace the bird on vertical tree trunks.
Of the more
than one dozen species of native U.S. woodpeckers, all except the red-cockaded
and the ivory-billed woodpecker seem to be faring well. The ivory-billed
woodpecker's problems began more than a century ago, when we began to
cut down the southern forests. By the time the bird was legally recognized
as endangered, the species was extinct throughout most of its range. Some
die-hard ornithologists maintained into the latter part of the 20th century
that isolated colonies still persisted in South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana,
and Texas. Guess no one thought to include Arkansas in the list.
specialist group of IUCN--the World Conservation Union--reported on the
final attempts to find the last of the ivory-billed woodpeckers in a remote
area of Cuba where three were reported to have been discovered in the
late 1980s. But these woodpeckers with their huge ivory-white beaks were
in effect considered gone forever by the late 1990s. Upon being officially
declared extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker was removed from the U.S.
endangered species list. The recent confirmation that it still exists
does not mean that it will persist.
of dollars are spent each year to protect habitats supporting colonies
of federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, especially those on
military lands, in national forests, and on other government-owned lands.
Some funds also go toward monitoring nesting success and conducting ecological
research to reveal the environmental requirements of the species. Both
tasks are necessary to fulfill management efforts for its protection.
because of research conducted on the Department of Energy's Savannah River
Site in South Carolina and a few other places where red-cockaded woodpeckers
persist, much has been learned about this distinctive woodpecker. Long
recognized as being more gregarious than other woodpeckers, they live
in small family groups called clans. A clan usually consists of a mated
pair, bachelor male offspring, and several juveniles. The young males
actually assist in defending the territory, incubating eggs, and feeding
the nestlings. The nesting cavity, which is critical to the natural history
of a red-cockaded woodpecker clan, is often passed down from one generation
to the next.
woodpeckers have highly specific habitat requirements. They nest exclusively
in old, yet living, pine trees, around which they center their colonies;
favored trees are more than 80 years old. The woodpecker chisels a nest
cavity in the tree, usually 20 to 50 feet above the ground.
may be almost gone and the red-cockaded may be in trouble, but most woodpeckers
are still abundant enough to be enjoyed by nature lovers. One of my favorites
is the pileated woodpecker, the prototype of Woody Woodpecker. It is similar
in general appearance to the larger ivory-billed. With its dazzling red
head crest, its loud, laughter-like call, and a body almost as big as
a crow’s, the pileated is a magnificent bird. Their large, rectangular
nest holes in dead pines and the chunks of wood they knock from trees
when searching for food are impressive. One particularly intriguing aspect
of the natural history of this enormous bird is its diet, which consists
red-bellied, and downy woodpeckers, flickers, and sapsuckers--each has
its own pattern of behavior, appearance, and ecological lifestyle. They
are all easy-to-appreciate birds. And unlike the endangered red-cockaded
and the near-extinct ivory-billed, they are still with us in abundance.
Let's try to keep it that way.
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