Land Stewardship
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Land Stewardship

Northern Bobwhite and Red-Cockaded Woodpecker: Habitat Connections

Though perhaps not the first location that comes to mind when imagining northern bobwhite habitat, the Piney Woods of east Texas certainly qualify! The longleaf pine-grassland can be perfect for bobwhites, so long as the right conditions are met. Unfortunately, bobwhite numbers are declining in the Piney Woods just as they are in many other Texas ecoregions, but there is another bird species that could be the saving grace of east Texas bobwhites: the red-cockaded woodpecker. This woodpecker is federally endangered due to human-induced ecosystem changes resulting in a lack of suitable habitat, which has led to the implementation of court decrees requiring intense habitat management for areas where red-cockaded woodpeckers are found. Management for the red-cockaded woodpecker does not only benefit the one species: there is overlap between the woodpecker’s needs and those of bobwhites, and quail are profiting from the changes.

A red-cockaded woodpecker outside a cavity bored in a pine tree. Sap from the tree flows around the cavity to keep predators away. Photo from TPWD.

In pre-colonial times, the longleaf pine-grassland habitat of the Piney Woods was maintained through regular burns, which were ignited naturally by lightning or by the Native Americans managing the land. The Europeans brought with them negative opinions on fire and a desire to exploit natural resources as they were available, initiating a change in landscape from a fire-maintained open longleaf pine-grassland to a fire-suppressed short-rotation pine forest managed for wood production. Over time, the old longleaf pine trees were harvested and replaced with young, faster-growing slash and loblolly pine, which tend to grow much more densely than longleaf: a trait desirable for the lumber industry, but are potentially harmful to wildlife not adapted to it. Red-cockaded woodpecker numbers declined rapidly as a result. The lack of fire to control the midstory led to overabundant hardwoods and closed canopies, changing the ecosystem and halting the cycle of plant succession. Some native species are able to live in the dense, closed-canopy habitat, but others — like the woodpeckers — cannot compete and must relocate or approach extinction.

Fire is an important tool for managing Piney Woods habitat. Photo from AgriLife Today.

Today, attempts have been made to restore the Piney Woods to their former pine-grassland state, not only for the red-cockaded woodpecker but also to return the entire ecosystem to what it was before human intervention. Law requires that areas with red-cockaded woodpeckers present must maintain open pine stands with grassy understories, no hardwood midstory, and controlled burns for regeneration at least every five years. The ideal habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers includes plenty of large, old pine trees spaced at least eight meters apart and minimal hardwoods, with an open midstory and canopy. On the ground, a grass understory and ground cover of native forbs and bunchgrasses is preferred. The woodpeckers favor longleaf pine trees at least 16 inches in diameter, but they will utilize other pine trees if necessary. While the habitat restoration efforts are helpful, patchy habitat can create new problems such as isolation and potential genetic drift, loss of genetic variation, and inbreeding depressions — a phenomenon already observed and documented as occurring in the Piney Woods.

Northern bobwhites in the Piney Woods ecoregion have many of the same requirements as in other areas of the state, namely adequate food and specific types of cover. Open canopy grassland is likely the most important factor for bobwhite in the Piney Woods. Prescribed fire to reduce woody vegetation helps to maintain forbs and grasses and to increase bare ground; this can also help increase insect density as well as herbaceous food and cover. Seeds from pine trees provide an important food source for East Texas bobwhites, along with partridge pea and clover. Though prickly pear is not likely to be present, little bluestem — an important nesting plant for bobwhite — is essential for ideal pine-grassland habitat. Very little historical data regarding bobwhite in the Piney Woods has been recorded, but since the 1960s it has become evident that they have been experiencing a steep decline and are rapidly disappearing from the area. It has been determined that, like the woodpeckers, bobwhites prefer a habitat of old pine without hardwood and with large amounts of open ground.

Though it may not seem like classic bobwhite habitat, quail can thrive in the Piney Woods. Photo from TPWD.

The similarities between habitat for northern bobwhite and red-cockaded woodpecker are numerous: open canopy, no hardwoods, well-spaced pines, and native forbs and bunchgrasses. The primary management strategy for their habitats also overlaps: fire. Controlled burning is known to be the best way to manage the Piney Woods for both bobwhite and red-cockaded woodpecker. Not only does fire directly benefit these species, but it also helps to restore the ecosystem to its original state, thus helping provide valuable habitat for other species also suffering from the change, such as Bachman’s sparrow and even white-tailed deer. Though management strategies for the two are similar, they are not exact. Bobwhites require more careful management of the understory, keeping the ground clear enough for chicks to traverse while maintaining sufficient cover. Red-cockaded woodpeckers instead demand greater focus on the pine trees they nest in and may require the creation of artificial hollows. Despite these differences, the overarching similarities enable the two to aid each other, and both are able to benefit greatly from the use of prescribed burning in order to persist in the Piney Woods of Texas.

Literature Cited

  1. Brennan, L. A. 1991. How can we reverse the northern bobwhite population decline? Wildlife Society Bulletin 19(4):544–555.
  2. Brennan, L. A., J. L. Cooper, K. E. Lucas, B. D. Leopold, and G. A. Hurst. 1995. Assessing the influence of red-cockaded woodpecker colony management on non-target forest vertebrates in loblolly pine forests of Mississippi: Study design and preliminary results. Red-cockaded woodpecker: Recovery, ecology, and management 1:309–319.
  3. Brennan, L. A. 2006. Texas Quails: Ecology and Management. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas, USA.
  4. Burke, J. D., M. J. Chamberlain, and J. P. Geaghan. 2007. Effects of understory vegetation management on brood habitat for northern bobwhites. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(6):1361–1368.
  5. Chamberlain, M. J., and L. W. Burger, Jr. 2005. Landscape-level effects of red-cockaded woodpecker management on bobwhite abundance and distribution. Proceedings of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 59:10–16.
  6. Cram, D. S., R. E. Masters, F. S. Guthery, D. M. Engle, and W. G. Montague. 2002. Northern bobwhite population and habitat response to pine-grassland restoration. Journal of Wildlife Management 66(4):1031–1039.
  7. Engstrom, R. T., and W. W. Baker. 1995. Red-cockaded woodpeckers on Red Hills hunting plantations: Inventory, management and conservation. Red-cockaded woodpecker: Recovery, ecology, and management. 1:489– 93.
  8. Provencher, L., N. M. Gobris, L. A. Brennan, D. R. Gordon, and J. L. Hardesty. 2002. Breeding bird response to midstory hardwood reduction in Florida Sandhill longleaf pine forests. Journal of Wildlife Management 66(3):641–661.
  9. Steen, D. A., L. M. Conner, L. L. Smith, L. Provencher, J. K. Hiers, S. Pokswinski, B. S. Helms, and C. Guyer. 2013. Bird assemblage response to restoration of fire-suppressed longleaf pine sandhills. Ecological Applications 23(1):134–147.
  10. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Recovery plan for the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis): second revision. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA.
  11. Wilson, C. W., R. E. Masters, and G. A. Bukenhofer. 1995. Breeding bird response to pine-grassland community restoration for red-cockaded woodpeckers. Journal of Wildlife Management 59(1):56–67.

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