How wildfires have helped these woodpeckers make a comeback

October 15, 2020
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WITH WILDFIRES RAGING once again across California, Oregon, and other western states, it’s easy to be overcome with despair. The damage, loss of life, and suffering have been immense. Blackened lands and smoldering trees testify to fire’s destructive power, and we see it as an enemy.

Yet wildfires, even those raging this summer in California’s Sierra Nevada Range and in Oregon’s Cascade Range, are also beneficial, playing a vital role in keeping ecosystems healthy. Numerous animals—including several species of woodpeckers, such as the black-backed and the red-cockaded—can’t survive without the fires that create perfect habitat for them.

For red-cockadeds, that means low-intensity blazes that periodically burn away the understory. Black-backeds, on the other hand, need fires of high-intensity, such as those burning this year in California’s and Oregon’s mountains. But they also want areas of green, unburned trees, which may be difficult for some of the birds to find this year. (Read more about how recent fires may be too devastating even for black-backed woodpeckers.)

To our eyes, such a fire-swept landscape “looks very stark,” says Rodney Siegel, a wildlife biologist and the executive director of the Institute for Bird Populations, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying and monitoring bird populations, in Petaluma, California. “But to black-backed woodpeckers, it looks like home.”

Indeed, Siegel and other experts say woodpeckers are a sign of a healthy forest, with a rich diversity of animals and plants. The longleaf pine forests that once stretched from Texas to New Jersey used to echo with the hammering of red-cockadeds, but beginning in the 1700s, overharvesting—compounded by suppression of natural fires—put the birds on the path to extinction.By 1970, their numbers had fallen from nearly two million to no more than 10,000, prompting the United States Department of the Interior to add the red-cockaded woodpecker to the fledgling federal Endangered Species List. That required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement a recovery plan to protect this cardinal-size bird, which is named for the male’s red ribbon-like stripe above a white cheek patch.

Now, 50 years later, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are more than 14,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers in 39 recovery populations across 11 states and that 75 percent of 20 of these populations have reached the service’s “objectives.” The woodpeckers are joining a special group of animals—including gray whales, gray wolves, and Yellowstone grizzly bears—that have gone from being nearly extirpated to likely having a viable future.

Aaron Valenta—the Fish and Wildlife Service’s chief of restoration and recovery programs for the southeastern U.S.—says his agency is rewriting its recovery plan for the red-cockaded woodpecker and intends to publish a proposal sometime this fall to remove the bird from the Endangered Species Act list.

“It’s an incredibly exciting step,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there was no question this bird was going extinct. Now, it’s a recovered species. It’s just amazing!”

The birds’ ongoing rehabilitation owes in large part to recognition by forest managers that controlled fires in the remaining forests are important because they help protect the longleaf pines the woodpeckers need for food and shelter. Another important contribution—by scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Service—to their gradual comeback has been the creation of artificial nesting holes.

Ecosystem engineers

“Woodpeckers are ecosystem engineers,” says Teresa Lorenz, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, in Olympia, Washington. She has tracked black-backeds in the forests of the Cascade Range. “Many small animals, from chipmunks to flying squirrels to mountain bluebirds and wood ducks, compete for the woodpeckers’ vacated nests because they are so protected from the elements and other predators. We wouldn’t have swallows, swifts, or bats without woodpeckers.” (Learn more about other animals that are also ecosystem engineers.)

Thriving and recovering forests in most of North and South America, and much of the world, need these birds to help maintain their overall biodiversity. (There are 180 woodpecker species in all, but none in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and Antarctica.) Several North American species—including red-cockaded, black-backed (see illustration above), Lewis’s, and white-headed—need their forests to burn periodically.

Red-cockadeds require low-intensity fires, those typically caused by lightning strikes, to sweep away the undergrowth beneath longleaf pine forests, while Lewis’s and white-headed, found only in the pine forests of western North America, need higher-intensity fires to create a mosaic landscape of dead, standing snags and unburned, green trees. Black-backeds are also found only in those pine forests, but they have a range that stretches from the West to the Midwest, Alaska and across Canada’s boreal forest. These woodpeckers too need hot fires—but primarily for attracting the fire-chasing beetles they eat. (The beetles are so well adapted to fire that they have special heat-detecting sensors and lay their eggs in still-smoldering trees.)

“Where you have more woodpeckers, you have a greater diversity of habitat types and more bird and mammal species,” says Kathy Martin, an ornithologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, and a woodpecker specialist. “In North America, 90 percent of the cavities woodpeckers make are eventually used by other species.” By providing housing for animals that disperse seeds, such as chipmunks and squirrels, woodpeckers in the southeastern longleaf pine forests help maintain native plants, including wire and bunch grasses and running oaks.

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