Endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers show signs of recovery in Alabama

Endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers show signs of recovery in Alabama
The red-cockade woodpecker is showing signs of recovery on Alabama Power's Lake Mitchell. (Bill Snow / Alabama NewsCenter)

An endangered species of woodpecker is on the comeback trail, thanks to the work of multiple organizations, including Alabama Power.

Once millions of red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) resided from Texas north to Missouri and northeast through Virginia and all states to the south. But habitat disruption, including the loss of millions of acres of longleaf pine forests, contributed to the species’ decline. Today, estimates show only about 12,000 RCWs remain in the U.S.

In recent years, however, conservation groups, public agencies and others have been working to stabilize and restore RCW habitat and increase the bird’s numbers.

Alabama Power’s Lake Mitchell is one place where the bird’s numbers are slowly on the rise.

Recent data from Alabama Power’s Lake Mitchell RCW Monitoring Program shows that breeding pairs of the species have increased, from nine to 11.

“Their increase is exciting to us,” said Chad Fitch, a Senior Environmentalist Affairs Specialist at Alabama Power. “The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species. They play a vital role in the complex web of life of our southern pine forests.”

Team effort to track, assist unique woodpeckers in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

About the same size of the common cardinal, the RCW is rarely visible. Its back is striped black and white and its most distinguishing feature is a black cap and nape that encircles large white cheek patches. The male has a small red streak on each side of its black cap called a cockade, giving the species its name. In the early 1800s when this name came into use, a cockade referred to a ribbon or other ornament worn on a hat.

The RCW is the only woodpecker species in North America that excavates exclusively in living pine trees.

“The trees RCWs choose for a home are older (80+ years) long leaf pines infected with the fungal red heart disease that softens heartwood,” Fitch said. It takes the birds six months to one and a half years to excavate a cavity. Many other creatures also make use of the cavities created through the woodpeckers’ hard labor.  At least 27 species of vertebrates have been documented using RCW cavities, either for roosting or nesting. They include insects, birds, snakes, lizards, squirrels and frogs. Many of these species, including wood ducks, use cavities that have been abandoned by RCWs – underscoring the woodpeckers’ importance in supporting species richness of pine forest ecosystems.

The increase in the RCW population at Lake Mitchell is a result of aggressive habitat management by Alabama Power.  The company is working with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help restore and establish new longleaf pine habitat throughout the state.

One important tool for restoring and improving RCW habitat is through controlled burning of undergrowth in mature longleaf pine groves. The burns help nurture and maintain the habitat that the birds need to survive.

“RCWs require open, park-like environments,” Fitch said.  “We manage their habitat at Lake Mitchell with prescribed burnings to ensure undergrowth does not get out of hand, giving the birds the best chance for survival.”

Alabama Power works with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to  help improve longleaf pine habitat and expand the RCW population. Every year, agency representatives are invited to Lake Mitchell to discuss the ongoing conservation efforts.

During the April-to-June nesting season, biologists from Alabama Power monitor the RCW nesting cavities at Lake Mitchell, documenting the number of adults in each group, the number of eggs laid and the number of fledglings. The data is included in an annual report submitted to the ADCNR and the USFWS.

Alabama Power also monitors the number of cavities found in the habitat. If the number of birds exceeds the number of cavities, the company will work with consultants to install artificial cavities – essentially tiny birdhouses that are cut into the trees – ensuring each breeding pair has a home.

The first recorded number RCWs at Lake Mitchell was 14 in the year 2003. This year, 32 adult RCWs were confirmed at Lake Mitchell. They produced 13 fledglings, making a population of 45.

“We are excited about the stability of the RCW number at Lake Mitchell,” Fitch said. “We will continue to do what we can to play a role in the recovery of this important species in our state.”

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