by Whit Gibbons

May 8, 2005

To mention 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.

More than 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.

The woodpecker 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.

Millions 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.

Fortunately, 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.

Red-cockaded 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.

The ivory-billed 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 primarily ants.

Red-headed, 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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