What does a cardinal-sized bird that spends its entire life above the ground have to do with wild turkeys? Turns out, plenty. Although red-cockaded woodpeckers and wild turkeys occupy entirely different niches in the ecosystem, both can thrive in properly managed longleaf pine habitat. So, it should come as no surprise that the NWTF is working closely with state, federal and non-governmental agencies on the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana to improve woodpecker habitat.
“We have a stewardship agreement with the USDA Forest Service that is actually aimed at improving quail habitat,” said Betsy Dutoit, NWTF district biologist. “The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries took the lead in this agreement, but they were looking for a partner to assist in implementing the work that was required.
“What’s good for quail is also good for turkeys. Turkeys need roost trees, nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat. The habitat we provide for quail in longleaf pine forests is excellent brood-rearing habitat for turkeys.”
And in this situation, what’s good for turkeys and quail is also good for red-cockaded woodpeckers. The birds are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. By working to restore quail habitat, the NWTF and federal and state partners are providing high-quality woodpecker habitat while improving quail and turkey habitat.
“Red-cockaded woodpeckers don’t like a bunch of mid-story growth, stuff like tallow and yaupon and sweetgum, all the trees you would typically see in an unmanaged pine stand,” Dutoit said. “So, by removing that mid-story, which are trees anywhere from around 5 to 15 feet tall, we are allowing more sunlight to hit the ground and really encouraging that native, herbaceous ground layer. That part is good for quail and turkeys. Those places attract all the bugs, which are the primary source of protein for a new poult.”
The Fire Factor
One of the most economical and efficient management tools to help create those habitat improvements is fire. Burning on a one- to two-year cycle helps keep woodpecker habitat in top shape by suppressing mid-story growth and reinvigorating younger, shorter cover. Woodpeckers thrive in large, open stands of longleaf pine with short understory.
That park-like habitat is also good for turkeys and quail. A regular burning cycle provides everything both birds need. The grasses host a variety of insects, but the ground is open enough to allow young turkeys and quail to move around freely. Those grasses become taller and denser in the second year, and a variety of other plants begin to fill in the landscape. That thicker cover is excellent nesting habitat. Creating a patchwork of habitat in different stages provides a diverse range of cover and food sources that benefit both young and adult birds.
By the third year after a prescribed burn, the cover starts becoming less attractive to ground-nesting birds and more attractive to nest predators like snakes and small mammals. Dutoit said research shows turkey nests are three-and-a-half times more likely to fail in habitat that hasn’t been burned in three years.
“We need to compromise with things like what time of year we burn and how often we repeat those burns,” she said. “When we stretch that burn interval out to a 3-year cycle, we can make the woodpeckers, quail and turkeys happy by maintaining herbaceous understory and providing cover for nesting. I also like burning as a management tool because I see a very good response from native plants.”
The Cow Factor
In some situations, however, burning isn’t always the best option. A prescribed fire may not be safe or practical due to nearby homes or other safety hazards. There is a suitable alternative, Dutoit said. Cows can accomplish many of the same things as fire. Much of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s historic range was also home to bison and elk. The impact of grazing by cattle, when conducted on a rotational basis, mimics what elk and bison did before they were extirpated from the landscape in the 1800s. The cows either eat the emerging shrubs and young trees or they keep it in check with the weight of their hooves. Grazing is allowed on parts of the Kisatchie National Forest as a conservation measure and because of long-standing agreements with local farmers.
“The nice thing about grazing is that it provides two benefits to the farmer,” Dutoit said. “The cattle have access to high-quality forage, and they help improve the timber value by reducing competition from other trees. Longleaf pines are highly valuable trees because they have dense wood, tight rings and a strong grain. Reducing competition helps increase their growth rates. Basically, cows help a farmer’s bottom line, and that ultimately ends up benefitting red-cockaded woodpeckers.”
In some instances, farmers are using cattle and burning, a combination producing “remarkable results,” Dutoit said. “These are called patch burns. The farmer will move his cattle off a spot, burn it, wait about a month for it to grow back and then move the cattle back to that unit so they have high quality forage.”
Whether parts of the national forest are subjected to burning or grazing, or both in some cases, the effects have been nothing but positive. The number of red-cockaded woodpeckers on the Kisatchie is growing. So much, in fact, some birds are occasionally live-trapped and transported to help establish or boost populations in new territories.
Forest Service research indicates red-cockaded woodpecker populations are increasing as a direct result of the habitat work conducted by the NWTF and other partner organizations. One study found a 50 percent increase on six military bases that have undergone habitat improvements.
The NWTF has also helped install, with Forest Service approval, woodpecker nest boxes in longleaf pines on the Kisatchie.
“We included the cavity inserts into the stewardship agreement because it was an easy thing for us to do,” Dutoit said. “We can purchase inserts with funds from a timber sale, install them into a few trees in the area, and then when the woodpeckers establish a new colony or cluster there, the Forest Service is obligated, under the Endangered Species Act, to maintain that habitat, indirectly providing quality quail and turkey brood habitat.
“So, we might buy 20 boxes, have them installed, and then the Forest Service must maintain a couple hundred acres. But the population grows, and they take some of those birds to another unit, or even another state, and that other agency must maintain more acres. It creates a ripple effect of both numbers and conserved or enhanced acres, all because we put a few wooden boxes 20 feet up in a tree.”
Efforts to preserve red-cockaded woodpecker habitat are expanding throughout their historic range, with a heavy emphasis on the Southern Piney Woods Focal Landscape. That means the NWTF will continue to work on longleaf pine habitat throughout the Southeast. And that means hunters will see more turkeys and quail thanks to a little bird that never sets foot on the ground.