Our chapter’s guest speaker at the July member’s meeting was Ms. Kelly Morris. Kelly is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working at the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge. Her presentation consisted of an overview of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW) Recovery Program and specifically the project involving the reintroduction of the birds to the Great Dismal Swamp.
She described several woodpecker species and how they are distinguished from each other. The RCW, pictured on the left, is about the size of a common cardinal. It’s back is barred with black and white horizontal stripes. The RCW’s most distinguishing feature is a black cap and nape that surround the large white cheeks patches. The RCW gets it’s name from the small red streak on each side of it’s black cap called a cockade. ” Cockade ” is a term that was used to refer to a ribbon or other ornament worn on a hat in the early 1800’s, thus the resulting common name for the woodpecker.
RCW’s prefer to live in mature pine forests, particularly long leaf pine forests. Long leaf pine forests have declined to the point that only about 1% of the original ecosystem remains today. Like wise the population of RCW’s has declined to about 3% of their colonial period populations. The RCW’s prefer mature pines because instead of boring out cavities in dead trees, like most other woodpeckers, the RCW is the only one that excavates cavities in living pine trees which suffer from a fungus that causes the heartwood to decay and become soft. The cavity excavation takes anywhere from 1 to 6 years to complete.
RCW’s are considered an endangered species and are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. There are believed to be approximately 14,000 birds with approximately 6,000 breeding groups in existence. That’s right, breeding groups. These birds breed in social groups consisting of a breeding pair and several offspring from the previous year. These offspring assist in incubating eggs, brooding and feeding nestlings produced by the breeding pair. These “helpers” are usually male offspring.
Kelly explained how fledgling birds are banded, transported and then released into artificial nesting cavities. The artificial nesting cavities are placed in 4-5 trees in close proximity to create cluster sites. This is done to create the proper environment to establish future breeding clusters. The Great Dismal Swamp project hopes to have 10 breeding clusters established within 5 years of reintroduction.
For more information about these interesting birds and the recovery program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy websites have multiple articles available.