More than 80 pairs of juvenile red cockaded woodpeckers are being moved from big groups in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas forests to bolster small groups in those states and in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.
In Louisiana, eight pairs were moved Monday from the Kisatchie National Forest — four to the Warren Prairie Natural Area in south-central Arkansas, and four elsewhere in the Kisatchie.
Thursday night, biologists in the forest’s southwestern Calcasieu Ranger District caught seven more pairs of the 5- to 7-inch-long black-and-white birds, which are named for a few tiny red feathers on their heads. All 14 birds were destined for the more northerly Winn Ranger District, said Steve Shively, the Calcasieu district’s head biologist.
At their new homes, males and females are put into neighboring man-made woodpecker holes. Artificial holes are needed because few longleaf pines are old enough to have heartwood softened by a fungus, allowing easier excavation by the cardinal-sized woodpeckers.
The nest boxes, set into tree trunks 22.5 feet off the ground, have fronts armored with steel and entry holes lined with PVC pipe to keep other kinds of woodpeckers from making the entryways too big for the intended occupants, Shively said.
This year, biologists plan to move 83 pairs, about the number moved in each of the past several years, said Will McDearman of Jackson, Miss., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the species recovery plan. There aren’t enough young birds to go around, so most small groups get outside additions every other year, he said. Once an area has 30 breeding pairs, it’s on its own.
The birds’ preferred habitat is longleaf pine, which once covered 90 million acres from Texas to Virginia. Logging left fewer than 3 million acres, in fragmented chunks. Without enough good habitat, the birds went on the endangered list in 1970.
They’ve been found nesting in cavities as low as 12 feet and as high as 50 feet from the ground. They drill holes around the tree so sap will leak out, making the trunk too sticky or slick for rat snakes, their biggest predator.
They nest in breeding groups, with up to four males helping incubate and feed the chicks from a breeding pair. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the number of such groups across 11 southern and southeastern states had risen from 5,627 in 1995, to 6,105 in 2006 and more than 7,000 now. Because the groups are so variable, there’s no good total population estimate, McDearman said.
In addition to the states involved in this year’s moves, they’re also found in North and South Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia.
Biologists wanted five pairs Monday from the Calcasieu District, but wound up with three pairs and three unmatched males, which were released, Shively said. That same night, biologists in the Vernon Ranger District near Fort Polk caught five pairs, he said.
They go out in the evening to watch as the birds peck for food and enter their nests. Once a juvenile enters, "we sneak up on the tree with a net on a long pole. We stick the net over the hole and try to get the bird to come out" into the net by scratching behind the nest box with a stick at the end of a long pole, Shively said.
"Sometimes they don’t want to — you have to put ladders on the tree and make them come out," Shively said.
It’s always very late before all the paperwork is done and biologists from the receiving forests can begin the drive to the birds’ new homes. There, each pair is screened in for the night.
"They’ll put screens over the holes so they don’t just fly out, disturbed, into the night and disappear," Shively said. "Then they come back in the morning ... and remove the screens. The birds come out, get acquainted and, we hope, establish their own families."
___ Online: Red Cockaded Woodpeckers and Kisatchie National Forest.