Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – To his coworker watching from the forest floor, the wildlife biologist 90 feet up the tree may not look to be moving much in the gusting wind.
However it may look from the ground though, the one strapped to the pine tree high above Fort Benning's sprawling woodlands knows all too well that the tree is swaying in a long arc, now 40 feet this way, now 40 feet that
Sometimes too, looking into the holes in old pines where red-cockaded woodpeckers make their homes, the biologists sometimes find the occupants are no longer the birds but the bees, or maybe wasps, unregistered tenants suddenly roused. Rattlers and other venomous snakes inhabit the forest undergrowth.
But such encounters with raw nature are a routine part of the steps Fort Benning has been taking for more than two dozen years to help the red-cockaded woodpecker population grow and keep growing. They often refer to the bird as the "RCW" for short. Their nests are typically referred to as cavities.
"In the spring of every year we go and we inspect all of the red-cockaded woodpecker cavities on the installation," said Doug Linden, a wildlife biologist with the Natural Resources Management Branch of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Public Works.
As the branch staff identifies a tree that's home to the woodpeckers, it records the position using the Global Positioning System, or GPS, said Linden.
"We know the location, they're all marked and tagged," he said.
When the biologists check those cavities, they clear them if need be of debris, water, or anything else that might trouble the woodpeckers.
The RCW has been on the endangered species list since 1970. By the 1990s, under federal conservation guidelines, U.S. military installations with large RCW populations began a set of actions to help the bird along. That's been part of a broader effort that has included various federal and state agencies and private sector organizations.
Since then, the overall red-cockaded woodpecker population has recovered enough to where federal authorities recently proposed changing its status from endangered to threatened.
Officials traveled to Fort Benning last month to formally announce the proposal, which is currently open to public comment, after which a decision is to be made.
Since the push to help the RCW began in earnest at Fort Benning in 1996, its population here has nearly tripled, said Linden.
But Fort Benning continues measures to help the woodpecker, among them a major focus on ensuring they have suitable living spaces.
For the red-cockaded woodpecker that means a live pine tree, but one old enough, and therefore soft enough, for the bird to be able to pick out a living space. That usually means pines older than 70 years.
The RCW is the only woodpecker species in North America that makes its home only in live pines, Linden said.
It can take an RCW years to peck a big enough cavity in the body of a living pine, he said. That's partly because a live pine heals itself when injured, making it for the woodpecker a protracted labor – one peck forward, two pecks back.
"It may take them anywhere from six months to three years to complete a cavity, depending on how often they work on it," said Linden.
"So it's not like where they start something in a dead tree, and they can come back to it a few days later," he said. "In a live pine tree, it's constantly trying to heal itself."
So Fort Benning helps house the RCW by using box-like wooden cavities called inserts, Linden said. The inserts are about 10 inches tall, four wide, six deep. They make their own out of blocks of western red cedar they order from a local mill, he said.
Most cavities at Fort Benning tend to be about 30 to 35 feet up the pine. Some are as low as five feet from the ground and others as high as 95, said Linden.
"One of our technicians can climb up the tree, with the chain saw, cut out the hole, put this cavity in place, and be finished in about an hour," he said.
"As opposed to a bird that might need a couple of years to get that cavity completed, we can go out to a stand and put in numerous cavities," said Linden. The birds may start roosting right away.
It's a climb they make with safety gear and a variety of tools.
"We'll wear hard hats and chainsaw chaps and long-sleeved shirts and leather gloves, etcetera," said Linden.
And they rely on lightweight aluminum Swedish ladders that can be added to a section at a time for the needed length. Each section is 10 feet, and the bottom section has spikes that can be sunk in the ground to anchor it.
It's not ideal for those who fear heights, especially in a good wind.
"When you're up there, you know it's movin' 30 or 40 feet in any direction every time the wind blows," said Linden. "You know it can certainly make for a hairy time.
"And then we have a safety protocol, only climbing with two people present. So nobody's out there climbing by themselves," he said.
"Someone might check a cavity to see what the contents were and it happens to be full of bees or wasps and they come flying out like crazy."
When they need to gauge how many birds are living within a particular place they sometimes draw them into the open by playing digital recordings of RCW calls.
The birds hear the calls and fly out for a look.
Another measure that aids many creatures, including the woodpecker, is the setting of carefully controlled fires at key points on the forest floor. Known as prescribed burns, the flames consume unwanted debris and generate chemical changes in the soil that make it ultimately richer in insects and other nutrients the RCW and other animals feed on.
The RCW's population is measured not in individual birds but in breeding groups, said Linden. A group consists of, at a minimum, a male-female pair. Each group may contain two to seven individual birds typically, he said.
"We don't count these particular species by individual because they don't function as individuals, they function as one family group, with only one nest in that group," he said. "So even if you had seven birds, they're still only having one nest. Whereas a group that has two birds is also only having one nest."
In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set Fort Benning the goal of increasing the RCW population to 351, said Linden. At that time the number of RCW breeding groups here stood at 143. It's now 412, he said.
"We've surpassed that number pretty significantly," he said of the original goal.
Fort Benning's abundance of live pines and its efforts to help the red-cockaded woodpecker keep a proper home has led to that outcome, said Linden.
And the installation of artificial cavities has been perhaps most crucial of all for the woodpeckers being able to thrive here, he said.
"They have a better chance of doing that than they do of striking out on their own and then trying to create a new territory," said Linden. "Because it takes so long for those birds to be able to excavate a cavity and then to also try to defend that area at the same time. We can install those cavities in a matter of hours, and that allows them to create these new breeding groups almost immediately."