The Birds and the Bombs
The fate of the Southeast’s longleaf pine forests, and the endangered woodpeckers that depend on them, may rest in the hands of the U.S. military.
On a Carolina blue afternoon in April, Jeff Walters pulled off a sandy road running through an airy stand of longleaf pine, slipped binoculars around his neck, and strode into the woods in search of an endangered bird. The genteel landscape less resembled a forest than manicured parkland: The pines were straight as masts and widely spaced, and Seussian tufts of wiregrass carpeted the floor. John Muir, passing through a longleaf forest in Georgia in 1867, wrote, “Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.” I fought the impulse to lie down and open a book.
But all was not tranquil in these North Carolina woods. The sporadic percussion of explosions and gunfire rattled the warm air, and twin-rotor helicopters whirred overhead. Armored trucks rumbled down the road, abristle with mounted machine guns, helmeted soldiers peeking out of the cab like gophers. Hazy blue smoke wafted in the bars of sunlight slanting through the boughs. It was hard to tell if we’d stumbled into a conservation area, or a war zone, or both.
Such is life on Fort Bragg, one of the world’s largest military installations, a 160,000-acre complex that houses 50,000 active-duty soldiers. This is where America’s sons and daughters learn to navigate hostile terrain, discharge heavy artillery, and leap from low-flying aircraft. This is where the 2nd Armored Division trained before liberating France, where the XVIII Airborne Corps prepped for Operation Desert Storm, where contemporary warriors landed after withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where the overwhelming technological might of the United States Army is on daily display — and where, surrounded by planes and guns and troops, dwells one of the country’s largest populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers, flourishing amidst the shock and awe.
Walters, a sturdy, dry-witted biologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, has been studying Fort Bragg’s woodpeckers since 1983, and he seems to know the base’s birds as well as he does his own friends and family. We wandered a hundred yards or so into the tidy forest, where a half-dozen longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) stood in a loose ring. The dark holes of woodpecker cavities stared out from each trunk, drilled into the heartwood at about the height of a basketball hoop. The trees were shellacked with pale sap, thick and gooey as cake icing. Walters picked up a branch and whacked the trunk. Nothing emerged.
“Nobody home,” he said. Still, the veneer of fresh sap suggested that some of these cavities were active, and that a woodpecker family group — a cluster, in ornithological parlance — was preparing to nest here again this year. “You can tell they’ve been chipping around the hole,” Walters added.
The bounteous sap also provided a clue to the red-cockaded woodpecker’s ingenious defense strategy. By drilling a constellation of small wounds, or “resin wells,” into the sapwood, woodpeckers convince pines that they’re under attack by insects, fooling the trees into secreting sap to pitch out the bugs. The sap, in turn, gums up the scales of rat snakes, tree-climbing predators that feast upon eggs. “A loblolly pine can pump out sap for maybe six or seven years, and then production drops below baseline levels,” Walters explained as we examined the tree. “But a longleaf pine, as far as anyone can tell, will produce sap essentially forever.” The tactic clearly works: A 2011 study in The Condor found that rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta and E. guttata) devoured no more than six percent of red-cockaded woodpecker nestlings, a tiny fraction of the losses sustained by other woodpecker species.
Suitable nesting trees were once ubiquitous in the American Southeast. When 18th century explorers wandered through the region, they found longleaf forest stretching from Virginia to Texas, 90 million acres in all. Two centuries of logging, agriculture, and development, however, have reduced longleaf to a measly 3.2 million acres. What’s more, most of that remaining acreage is chockablock with young, spindly trees that sprung up in the wake of farming or timber sales — little help to red-cockaded woodpeckers, which avoid pines younger than 60 years old. The birds were also harmed by America’s obsession with Smokey the Bear, and the fire prevention dogma that curtailed natural burn cycles throughout the lightning-struck South. In the absence of regular blazes, longleaf forests became choked by dense understory hardwoods, making it harder for the birds to fly between pines and easier for hungry snakes to slither into nests.
Little wonder, then, that as longleaf and fire vanished, red-cockaded woodpeckers disappeared in their wake. As many as 1.5 million woodpecker families — more than 3 million individual birds — had once drilled their cavities across the Southeast; by the time the bird was listed as endangered in 1970, just 4,000 clusters remained. The red-cockaded woodpecker risked going the dismal way of its cousin, the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker, which likely vanished from southern swamps before World War II.
More than three decades later, however, the red-cockaded’s outlook has considerably brightened. Although the species remains endangered, today 7,200 clusters flit across 11 states. Few regions have experienced recovery as dramatic as North Carolina’s Sandhills, the belt of rolling, sandy-soiled pine forests around Fort Bragg, where woodpecker populations have roughly doubled in the last three decades. Now that extinction is no longer an immediate threat, the region’s biologists and land managers are turning their attention to a challenge of another magnitude: restoring red-cockaded woodpeckers, and the iconic tree they depend on, to a semblance of their former glory. If the Southeast is going to achieve that immense goal, much depends on a single very large landowner.
As birds go, the red-cockaded woodpecker is less than spectacular — a cardinal-sized creature, feathered in demure black-and-white, whose only flair is a crimson patch that males sport behind their cheeks. What Leuconotopicus borealis lacks in splendor, however, it makes up in its extraordinary social behavior.
While some 97 percent of birds raise their young unassisted — one male, one female, and a nest full of chicks — red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders. That means they live in often-elaborate groups, in which up to eight birds share a territory. A typical family is structured around a breeding pair whose reproductive labors are aided by a coterie of chaste young helpers, typically males, who aid in excavating cavities, foraging for insects, and defending the nests. The helpers even develop brood patches, a swatch of warm, featherless underbelly, in preparation for incubating the eggs that will become their younger siblings. Imagine a human family with the world’s most agreeable older brothers, and you’ve basically got it.
For years, scientists weren’t certain why red-cockadeds — dubbed RCWs by the woodpecker cognoscenti — lived in family units. In the 1970s, a bearded, stork-like biologist named Jay Carter set to unraveling the bird’s behavior. Carter, a Sandhills native, saw his first RCW when he was 13 years old and fell in love with the unusual birds. When Carter began a graduate-degree program at North Carolina State University in 1973, he translated his fascination into an ambitious research plan: He would capture, band, and monitor every red-cockaded woodpecker in the Sandhills.
The methods of Carter’s team were rudimentary but effective. He’d sneak up on a woodpecker hole under cover of darkness and rap on the trunk of its tree, flushing the occupant into a waiting net. Chicks were plucked from their nests with delicate string nooses. “At the very beginning, we were trying to capture entire populations literally in a matter of months,” recalled Carter when I visited him at his Southern Pines office, a room paneled with paintings of red-cockaded woodpeckers, kestrels, and wood ducks. “We’d be out till 2 or 3 in the morning catching birds. You’d chase some for years, just trying to get into a situation where you could net ‘em.”
Carter — joined in 1983 by Jeff Walters, and over the years by a legion of other biologists, technicians and students — adorned each woodpecker with color-coded leg bands, identifying jewelry that allowed the growing research team to follow family groups as they formed, dissolved, scattered, and reorganized over decades. Many of the internecine dramas were practically Shakespearean — sons ascended to the thrones of slain patriarchs; outcast daughters tried to infiltrate rival groups; birds of both sexes struck out from home in search of new lands. “You try not to anthropomorphize, but their groups have such great personalities that it’s hard not to,” one scientist acknowledged to me.
What explained the soap operas? In a word: cavities. Unlike every other woodpecker in North America, RCWs drill their nests not in decaying dead trees, but into the harder wood of living pines. Without the entire family chipping in, the birds couldn’t excavate their homes; even with full cooperation, red-cockaded woodpeckers take months or years to carve out each nest. Some cavities require more than a decade of work. The imperative of finding, acquiring, or constructing cavities thus guides a woodpecker’s every move. “They’re basically playing a waiting game, looking for a chance to either inherit a territory, or move to another territory in the neighborhood,” Walters said.
In the human-dominated Southeast, however, suitable cavities are scarce. “There were a lot of times when we’d find birds, go back to band ’em six months later, and they’re gone,” Carter recalled. The oldest trees had been cut for timber or boiled down into tar generations ago, and scrubby oaks throttled leftover second-growth pine. Although their habitat lay in shambles, RCWs had survived in the Southeast’s few remaining redoubts: military bases. The military had kept installations like Fort Bragg, the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, and Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base intact for decades, staving off farms and houses to give troops space to train. In the absence of development pressure, some pines had regrown enough to provide suitable nesting habitat. On Fort Bragg, accidental blazes sparked by bombs, bullets and flares had also cleared out underbrush, creating an unnatural but effective simulacra of wildfire.
Just because the military was incidentally conserving woodpecker habitat, however, didn’t make it a good steward. Fort Bragg’s forest managers were still cutting old trees and suppressing fires — the activities most inimical to woodpecker health. In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the Army to protect and manage for Fort Bragg’s RCW population, which then numbered just over 200 clusters. The decision hurled the base into chaos. Artillery ranges closed, troops shipped out, and there was even talk of moving the base. When soldiers did train, restrictions curtailed their activities. “We were worried that we were teaching our soldiers and commanders bad habits,” Mike Lynch, the base’s former planning director, recalled to me. “They were more concerned with woodpeckers than about avoiding detection or setting up an ambush.”
At first, the Army and the Fish and Wildlife Service struggled to communicate, let alone develop a management plan. “We couldn’t sit in a room together without five attorneys acting as referees,” Lynch said. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms even authored a bill that would have exempted the base from the Endangered Species Act.
Common ground finally came courtesy of research revealing that all the bombs, helicopters, and troops didn’t much bother the birds. “I’ve seen woodpeckers knocked out of trees by the percussion from artillery and just flutter right back up,” Jeff Walters told me. Not to say that the constant clamor was good for the woodpeckers, but it wasn’t the main problem — the habitat was.
The biologists handed down their mandate: Stop cutting down older-growth pine trees, and start setting fires during lightning season. The base’s new Endangered Species Branch placed Fort Bragg on one of the country’s most aggressive fire cycles, burning a full third of the base — nearly 60,000 acres — every three years. That was just fine by Lynch, as blazes that cleared understory for woodpeckers also made space for the passage of troops and tanks. “It didn’t take long for us to realize that the same open savannah habitat that woodpeckers like was also good habitat for soldiers,” said Jackie Britcher, chief of the base’s Endangered Species Branch.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that the same open savannah habitat that woodpeckers like was also good habitat for soldiers”
With their woods on the mend and artificial cavities popping up in younger forest, the woodpeckers stormed back. By 2005, 368 clusters had spread across Fort Bragg and its adjoining lands, leading Fish and Wildlife to declare the region’s birds recovered — the first red-cockaded woodpecker population to achieve that status. Today, Bragg hosts nearly 500 clusters, making it home to the second-largest population in the country, behind only Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest. Some military training restrictions still linger in important demographic areas — troops can’t camp beneath nesting pines, for instance — but soldiers generally move through the woods unencumbered. Camp Lejeune and Eglin Air Force Base have experienced even more dramatic recoveries. Said Walters, the day we toured Fort Bragg: “The military is absolutely the best land manager in the entire Southeast.”
If there’s any place that would seem less conducive to species recovery than a military base, it would be the water-gulping, herbicide-ridden environs of a golf course. Yet that’s where I found myself the day after my trip to Fort Bragg, scouring a stand of longleaf for nesting red-cockaded woodpeckers in the town of Southern Pines. A group of polo shirt-clad golfers looked on in bemusement from an adjacent fairway.
I didn’t blame them for their confusion. Sarah Haney, my companion for the day, cut a bizarre figure. Haney, a biologist with Jay Carter’s environmental consulting firm, had come to the golf course to conduct nest checks, an annual ritual in the legendary monitoring project once launched by Carter, which continues to this day. Haney’s tool was a TreeTop Peeper, a telescoping yellow pole with a camera at one end and a wireless video screen at its base. By poking the camera into a woodpecker cavity, Haney could monitor happenings within the nest from the safety of the ground. She affectionately called the apparatus Tom, as in Peeping.
While Peeping Tom wasn’t the most complex instrument, using him took physical prowess. Haney paid out the pole farther and farther, the camera inching toward a cavity 30 feet up the trunk. The higher the pole reached, the more it wobbled, and the more forearm strength it required to keep steady. Trying to slip the camera’s probe into the hole was not unlike attempting to pass a strand of cooked spaghetti through the eye of a needle. Dodging errant golf balls added an extra layer of difficulty. “I’ve definitely been peeping a tall tree and heard, “Fore!” and I’m like, where?!” Haney said, her teeth clenched in concentration.
At last, she managed to slip the camera into the cavity. On the screen flashed live video of the currently vacant nest — a dark chamber, the size of a bread loaf, strewn with wood shavings. The fresh chips were sure signs that this tree would soon host a nest. “RCWs always keep their cavity nice and tidy, without any feathers or excrement or eggshells, so they can keep using the same one,” Haney said. “Whereas red-bellied woodpeckers just go elsewhere if it gets really nasty.” In a few weeks, Haney would return with a ladder and a string noose to carefully lift the week-old fledglings from the nest, outfit their legs with color-coded bands, and return them unharmed to their cavity — the next subjects in the four-decade project.
As Haney retracted the pole, we heard a short, high-pitched cry, like the squeak of a chew toy. Haney thrust Tom into my hands and lifted her binoculars. I followed her gaze to the diminutive bird hopping along a nearby pine limb. A blizzard of rust-colored bark rained down as the red-cockaded woodpecker tapped for insects. Another bird, its mate or a helper, alit and began its own conspicuous foraging.
“C’mon, show me your bands,” Haney whispered. Obligingly the woodpeckers bounced closer, allowing Haney to pick out their colored bracelets. Back at Haney’s truck, we leafed through a genealogical binder, identifying one bird with pink and yellow bands as a male who’d inhabited this cluster for nine years. The other woodpecker wasn’t in the binder, though it was doubtlessly logged in the office archives, a towering bookcase whose shelves groaned beneath the weight of thousands of pages of woodpecker lineage.
The woodpeckers of Southern Pines, the quaint town that lies to Fort Bragg’s west, are technically members of the same population as the base’s birds. But while Bragg’s RCWs are flourishing, the suburban clusters scattered throughout Southern Pines are merely stable, suffering from lower birth and survival rates than their military counterparts. The problems are myriad: Golf courses and homeowners knock down trees; private landowners don’t have the ability or the will to engineer fires; backyard birdfeeders attract competitors, like red-bellied woodpeckers, that oust red-cockadeds from their nests. During my tour with Haney, Peeping Tom espied more flying squirrels and nuthatches in cavities than red-cockaded woodpeckers. The worst offenders are pileated woodpeckers, hawk-sized birds that enlarge red-cockaded holes so that they’re useless to their original occupants. “In 30 minutes a pileated woodpecker can destroy a cavity that it took an RCW years to build,” Carter lamented.
One solution to these myriad pressures is simple: If woodpeckers are losing nests to logging, development, and rival birds, give them more cavities. Conventional wisdom once held that dispersing woodpeckers were looking for old trees in which to excavate their own nests, but Jeff Walters suspected that they were primarily scouring the landscape for existing holes. In the 1980s, his team petitioned various Southeast forest managers for funding to drill human-made cavities for the woodpeckers’ use. “They told me it was the single dumbest idea that they’d heard in their careers,” Walters recalled, with some amusement. “They said, ‘Does this guy not even know that woodpeckers can make holes?’”
Walters secured a threadbare budget from the National Science Foundation, and in 1988 and 1989 the project team excavated artificial cavities across 20 acres of unoccupied Sandhills habitat, using little more than a ladder and a drill with a modified bit. Within a single year, 18 of the 20 new sites were inhabited. The artificial cavity technique received a further trial after Hurricane Hugo flattened nearly 90 percent of the longleaf in the Francis Marion National Forest in 1989. The Forest Service embarked on an epic building spree, drilling more than 1,400 cavities to help the bird rebound from Hugo’s aftermath. Today, artificial cavities are perhaps the second-most important tool in the RCW biologist’s box, after fire.
In the mosaic of golf courses, timber plantations, horse farms, and suburban backyards that characterize Southern Pines, artificial cavities have helped clusters disperse and spread. The Sandhills Ecological Institute, the environmental nonprofit that now spearheads the monitoring project, also relocates young birds across the landscape, for instance introducing females to territories controlled by a single male in hopes of sparking a cluster. Although translocations have helped reestablish some subpopulations, it remains slow going. “It’s anyone’s guess whether any individual bird is going to stay,” said Kerry Brust, the Institute’s director. “It’s like an arranged marriage, where they may not like where you bring them and they move somewhere else to take up with another bird.”
Although arranged marriages aren’t ideal, they’re necessitated by Southern Pines’ patchy habitat. Red-cockaded woodpeckers occasionally perform a behavior that Walters calls “jumping” — flying dozens of kilometers, sometimes over open fields and towns, in search of cavities and habitat. Mostly, though, they’re homebodies, undertaking short puddle-jumps to scan their neighbors’ territory for available holes. In a landscape like Southern Pines, fragmented by houses, roads, and farms, the birds often remain disconnected. No gap is larger than the one that yawns between Fort Bragg and the Sandhills Gamelands, a state-run nature reserve that lies 10 miles to Bragg’s west — a chasm that woodpeckers almost never cross. That separation is bad news both for genetic diversity, and for family continuity. In the absence of reinforcements, clusters are doomed to eventually blink out.
Add it all up, and the promising saga of Sandhills recovery looks more tenuous. “You’re fighting a rear-guard action, just trying to keep enough cavities on the landscape to support the birds you have,” Carter told me in his office. “And you can’t rely on natural immigration because you don’t know if birds are going to show up.” Fort Bragg remains an island in an ocean of development, one that contributes only the periodic woodpecker to the surrounding ecosystem. If the red-cockaded woodpecker is to not only persist, but thrive across the Southeast, it will take more than incidental conservation on military bases. It’s going to take a bigger vision — and a lot of patience.
On my final day in the Sandhills, I joined Mike Norris, a Nature Conservancy land manager with a wrestler’s physique, a Duck Dynasty beard, and a closet pyromaniac’s affinity for fire. Norris’ pride and joy is a 3,300-acre tract of longleaf, called the Calloway Forest Preserve, that abuts Fort Bragg’s southern border. When we toured the property in his pickup truck, we found it still smoldering from a fire, perhaps set by munitions, that had jumped the property line. “Looks like they had their hands full,” Norris whistled as we rolled past smoking earth.
Just as Fort Bragg shares its fire, so too does it lend Calloway woodpeckers. Several clusters have relocated from the base to the Conservancy’s forest, and Norris thinks Calloway could someday support many more. Perhaps these woods could even serve as the elusive bridge that connects Fort Bragg with the greater Sandhills ecosystem. Norris’ goal, he told me, was no less than “one of the largest intact forests of mature longleaf in the Southeast.”
To fulfill that dream, though, Norris and the Nature Conservancy will have to overcome history. In its pre-Conservancy incarnation, Calloway functioned as a pine straw farm, whose owners raked fallen pine needles for garden mulch, stripping the forest floor of grasses, wildflowers, and legumes in the process. The resultant sandy desert offered little hospitality for red-cockaded woodpeckers, which need healthy ground cover to sustain tasty insects. The problem at Calloway wasn’t a lack of old trees or cavities — it was a shortage of food.
Since 2008, Norris has been trying to make Calloway a more nourishing environment. He took me to one stand that had been thinned in January 2015. The Conservancy had removed the small pines and left the big ones, allowing more light to reach the forest floor; then, a year later, they’d burned the grove, intentionally setting fires with drip torches to clear downed branches and help wiregrass flourish. We walked beneath big pines, Norris stopping every few steps to inspect the rebounding ground cover. The site still looked barren in many spots, with bare soil peeking through grass like a bad combover. But Norris saw much to like. He knelt to touch fine purple flowers in a patch of goat’s rue. “We’re still not quite getting the regeneration we’d like, but it’s really good to see this stuff.”
The return of ground cover doesn’t merely help woodpeckers. Tufts of wiregrass and other herbaceous plants offer shelter for ground-nesting Bachman’s sparrows, feed quail and wild turkeys, and sustain the rodent prey of timber rattlers and pine snakes. Woodpecker cavities afford habitat for kestrels, bluebirds, screech owls, and other arboreal species. Gopher frogs and box turtles dwell in the drainages that run through longleaf forests. Wildlife biologists tend to be fond of “umbrella species,” charismatic creatures whose conservation shields other species in the same ecosystem. The concept isn’t foolproof, but the logic is sound: If you preserve, say, the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests for spotted owls, you aid marbled murrelets and fishers. The most famous umbrella is the grizzly bear, totem for conservation throughout the Northern Rockies. As the author Doug Chadwick once put it, “Where the grizzly can walk, the earth is healthy and whole.”
What the grizzly is to the Rockies, the red-cockaded woodpecker is to the piney woods. Old trees, frequent fire, and luscious ground cover — the staples of good RCW habitat — also nurture myriad other southeastern species. Granted, the umbrella has a few holes: Riparian animals, like some butterflies, may not be covered by a myopic focus on woodpeckers. Still, in one study, Jeff Walters found that overall biodiversity shoots up in areas with good RCW habitat. “If you meet their needs, you seem to meet the needs of most things,” Walters concluded.
That realization has some conservation biologists thinking beyond the Sandhills. These days, landscape-scale wildlife corridors are all the rage: The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is stitching together the Northern Rockies; the Sky Island Alliance is sewing up the Southwestern borderlands; the European Green Belt is linking more than 20 countries from Scandinavia to the Adriatic Sea. Similar projects have taken root in the Southeast, including the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a still-nascent effort to join the swamps and forests of the Sunshine State. Could a similar endeavor flower throughout the larger longleaf belt — a Great Piney Woods Corridor, say, with the red-cockaded woodpecker as its lodestar and Bragg, Lejeune, and Eglin as its Yellowstone, Glacier, and Banff? “You can imagine a backbone of longleaf pine that runs from North Carolina all the way to Florida and Louisiana,” Nick Haddad, a North Carolina State University biologist who works on longleaf corridors, told me. “There’s an opportunity to think on a truly enormous scale.”
For now, reuniting the various Sandhills islands is challenge enough. The ambition of that task became clear as Norris and I toured other Nature Conservancy properties near Fort Bragg, each forested with a different stage of longleaf. At one roadside site, the trees stood barely taller than head-height; at another, they resembled pineapples. Finally we arrived at the ur-trees — tiny sprays of ankle-high needles poking out of furrowed ex-farmland. The Conservancy had burned the property first, then scalped it with a tractor to purge it of weeds, before finally planting these tiny pines, now rising like carrots. They looked heartbreakingly vulnerable, as though any frost, fire, or burrowing animal would wipe them out.
But you don’t come to dominate the Southeast by being fragile. “These little longleaf are meant to be burned,” Norris said as he stooped to brush his fingers through the green needles. “It’s gonna look a little goofy for a while, but hopefully in 20 or 30 years it’ll work itself out.”
Twenty to thirty years from now, of course, Mike Norris — not to mention Jay Carter, Jeff Walters, Kerry Brust, and the other leading lights of woodpecker conservation — will have retired. Twenty or thirty years after that, and Norris and I might be soil ourselves. And even then, in 2076 — a year so distant it’s difficult to contemplate — these trees may still not be ready to host red-cockaded woodpeckers. RCW conservation requires not only time but imagination, the ability to see a landscape both as it is and as it will be. Fort Bragg is proof that the species can recover quickly, given old trees and frequent fire. But most of the Southeast still has neither.
I turned to Norris and asked, rather indelicately, what it was like to work on a conservation project that will still be around long after you die. He laughed. “Maybe it would be better if I just moved to Mexico when I retire, so I don’t have to see what happens next,” he joked. “You just gotta have hope for the future, that the people who come after you have a good vision.” As far as the red-cockaded woodpecker has come, it will fly, or fall, on the wings of the next generation.