A roller coaster ride with red-cockaded woodpeckers
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat 8/7/14 photo by Tara Tanaka
The phrase “wildlife management” seems oxymoronic at first blush. Can you really mange something that is wild?
This thought came up frequently during efforts to re-establish red-cockaded woodpeckers on Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy. The Red Hills region supports the largest population of this imperiled woodpecker found on private lands, but woodpeckers disappeared from Tall Timbers in the early 1980s. Returning the flagship bird required working with finicky wildlife that, by definition, might not be wild about the idea.
The first hint of a wild rollercoaster ride came with the release of eight teenage woodpeckers in fall 2006. We had spent months installing scores of artificial cavities high in our pines. The cavities provide great homes for woodpeckers being transported from other areas in the Red Hills.
Rather than taking to the new environs, most flew away so quickly that we suspect they did not stop until reaching Alabama. Furthermore, the two males and single female that stayed did not interact regularly during winter months, an unusual behavior for this social bird.
The rollercoaster did not rise above the clouds of doubt until we found a single egg in a cavity in late May. There was another egg the next day, and we suddenly had the first nest recorded on Tall Timbers in over 25 years. We were on upward swing for sure, but a predator took the eggs a few days later and the rollercoaster swooped back down in a rush. We stayed in a dissolute trough for weeks until a second nesting attempt put us on a permanent plateau. In late June, the nest fledged two very healthy young.
Eight teenage woodpeckers were released again in the fall of 2007. We had better retention with this release that led to production of 11 young during the next breeding season. The population seemed ready to take off, but then came Tropical Storm Fay later that summer. Woodpeckers and heavy rains do not mix very well, and the deluge brought by Fay wiped out about half the population.
Up, down, up, down, up… it might be time to get off this ride!
Ten more woodpeckers released over the next two years seem to put the population on even ground. We had nine successful nests this past breeding season, and the population has grown steadily since the release of woodpeckers was suspended in 2010. We seem poised to reach the goal of 10 to 11 territories within the next couple of years, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed as does anyone who attempts to manage wildlife.
Jim Cox oversees research activities of the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers Research Station and Conservancy