THOMASVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Working by flashlight in a Georgia pine forest, wildlife biologists carefully position nets over tree cavities 30 to 40 feet above ground.
Soon there is a rustling in the darkness, and they manage to catch one red-cockaded woodpecker. Biologist Jim Cox then attaches aluminum leg bands that will help track the bird’s movements.
The work of Mr. Cox and others is part of a massive effort to restore healthy populations of the endangered woodpecker in the South, and it seems to be paying off.
“We have turned the corner,” said Ralph Costa, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator in Clemson, S.C.
Active woodpecker clusters — family groups of three birds or more — have increased nearly 30 percent, from 4,694 in 1994 to 6,061.
The birds once thrived in the longleaf pine forests that stretched from Texas and Oklahoma in the west to Georgia and Florida in the east and up the coast as far as New Jersey.
Farming, clear-cutting and commercial forestry deprived them of critical habitat and the woodpeckers were declared endangered in 1970. The Fish and Wildlife Service started a program in the 1990s to save them.
The recovery effort got a boost with habitat conservation plans that allow landowners to move isolated woodpeckers unlikely to survive and safe harbor agreements that provide financial incentives for artificial nests and other habitat enhancements.
Before these partnerships, some private landowners shunned the birds, fearing the federal government would dictate how they could use their land.
Now there are 569 woodpecker partnerships with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Costa said. He said the number of clusters on private land also has increased from 969 in 1994 to a current count of 1,248.
The 7- to 8-inch black and white woodpeckers are finicky, high-maintenance birds. They peck nesting cavities only in pine trees that are at least 80 years old and infected with a fungal disease that softens the interior. However, it can take the birds months, even years, to peck out a suitable nesting cavity.
Mr. Costa said the development of artificial cavities and the ability to relocate birds has helped the recovery effort. About 20 years ago, researchers found a quick way to provide additional nests by drilling cavities in trees and inserting nesting boxes.
“The populations were declining before we figured out that we could give them subsidized housing and move them around. Now we build the neighborhoods and bring the birds to them,” he said.
However, even at the current growth rate, it will take another 70 years before the species has recovered sufficiently to be taken off the endangered species list, officials say.