Chances of survival increase for endangered woodpecker

There’s a glimmer of hope for one of Georgia’s most endangered creatures, the red-cockaded woodpecker. The world’s largest conservation partnership, Birdlife International, says the little bird’s status is slightly improving because of intensive efforts to save it from extinction.

Besides being rare, the red-cockaded woodpecker is one of Georgia’s most unusual birds — the only woodpecker that drills its nest cavity in a living pine tree. For that, it needs pine trees, preferably longleaf pines, 80 years or older with softened heartwood.

Once common in the vast longleaf pine forest that covered half of the South a century ago, the red-cockaded woodpecker has vanished from most of its former range. The main reason was the loss of the great longleaf forest to extensive logging during the last century. Only remnants of the forest remain. Most of the logged-over forest was converted to agriculture or replanted with fast-growing loblolly and slash pines.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers’ numbers plummeted from an estimated 1.9 million birds two centuries ago to about 9,000 to 11,000 birds now. Only about 5 percent of Georgia’s original red-cockaded population remains.

The federal government listed the 7-inch, black-and-white bird as endangered in 1970, a status that is unchanged.

But the United Kingdom-based Birdlife International, using its own classification system, has upgraded the woodpecker’s status from “vulnerable” to “near threatened.”

It means, in essence, that although the bird is still very much endangered, it’s doing better than in the past.

Birdlife International is devoted to conservation worldwide. In justifying its upgrade, it said that several red-cockaded populations in the South “are stable or increasing as a result of intensive management” by state and federal agencies, conservation groups, private landowners and corporations.

A major thrust is to restore the longleaf ecosystem. A healthy longleaf pine forest, which must be burned occasionally by low-level fire to stay healthy, supports not only the red-cockaded woodpecker but an amazing range of other wildlife, such as the indigo snake, which is also endangered.

IN THE SKY: The season of autumn (autumnal equinox) officially begins on Sunday at 4:44 p.m.

The moon will be in last quarter on Thursday night, Sept. 26, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Mercury is very low in the west just after sunset. Venus is in the west at dusk and sets about two hours later. Mars rises out of the east about two hours before dawn. Jupiter rises out of the east just after midnight. Saturn is low in the southwest just after dark and sets shortly thereafter.

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