Pleased at woodpecker’s return

Published 6:01 pm Friday, October 2, 2020

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Today’s front page carries good news: the conservation status of the red-cockaded woodpecker has improved to the point that the federal government has proposed downlisting its status from endangered to threatened.

The woodpecker, a spiffy little black-and-white species whose males sport a dash of red behind each eye, is a beautiful specimen of ornithology that, for far too long, has been difficult to spot. That’s because its numbers have been steadily falling for centuries.

Efforts to reintroduce the woodpecker locally have been ongoing for five years. You can read more of the details in the story, but suffice to say that breeding in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has been moderately successful.

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Folks more consumed with their own lives — and with good reason, with so much going on these days — might be tempted to dismiss the importance of individual species. But no one can deny that the entire ecosystem of our area works as a team, and when you remove one member, the others struggle to survive.

Flora species with diminishing population tend to get less recognition than the endangered fauna, but they are often integrally linked. The woodpecker’s past, present and future was and is tied to another diminishing species, the longleaf pine. Longleaf pine is the red-cockaded woodpecker’s preferred habitat, but as of four years ago, only about 200 native longleaf pines remained in the entire state of Virginia. That’s because early settlers used the tree to build ships and to produce pitch, tar and turpentine; they cleared longleaf pine stands for agricultural use; they introduced feral hogs, which eat the seedlings; and they suppressed naturally occurring fire, which is vital to the longleaf ecosystem.

It’s known as the “tree that built Virginia,” and it literally was. But in building Virginia, those early settlers destroyed the longleaf pine.

Longleaf pine is vital to our area and the survival of many animal species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker. Of the 290 species of amphibians and reptiles that occur in the Southeast, 170 are found in the remnants of longleaf pine forest. Additionally, nearly 900 plant species occur only in the longleaf forests.

We’re pleased to see the success of the efforts to revive the populations of red-cockaded woodpecker, longleaf pine and other endangered species in our area.