GEORGIA — Through the Corridor of Flight project, wildlife habitat on 3,000 acres of National Forest and National Fish and Wildlife Refuge lands will be improved for red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW) and other wildlife in middle Georgia.
The project, headed by the National Wild Turkey Federation and its project partners, will create a more open and continuous landscape between the adjoining lands of the Oconee National Forest and Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, which is known as the Piedmont Recovery Unit (PRU). This pathway will enable the endangered RCWs to build their nests and fly freely throughout the area.
“The number of red-cockaded woodpeckers has decreased as their habitat has decreased,” said Greg Boozer, NWTF wildlife biologist. “The only way to increase the population is to improve habitat for these birds. The Corridor of Flight project will create more open corridors through needed areas of the Piedmont Recovery Unit, which will encourage red-cockaded woodpeckers to move or expand their range into unoccupied areas.”
RCWs are about the size of common cardinals, and have very peculiar habitat needs. So peculiar, in fact, that because of changing forests, only 12,500 of the birds exist from Florida to Virginia and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas, representing about 1 percent of the woodpecker’s original population.
RCWs are found only in old-growth pine stands, which are nearly nonexistent except on national forests, national wildlife refuges and military bases. They also are the only woodpecker species to make their homes exclusively in living pine trees. Excavating a home takes from one to three years.
“When managing red-cockaded woodpeckers, we first ask where the young go,” said Carolyn Johnson, US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager on the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. “While these birds are successful breeders and take excellent care of their young, the fledglings can’t survive if they have nowhere to go after leaving their family unit. We have to give these young birds places to go in order to perpetuate the population. Creating artificial openings in pine trees, which is one project biologists will complete through the Corridor of Flight project, will allow fledglings to easily set up their homes.”
According to Liz Caldwell, a US Forest Service biologist on the Oconee National Forest, red-cockaded woodpeckers base their habitat choices solely upon how an area looks. If a barrier of dense trees is blocking excellent habitat, the bird is unlikely to fly into the barrier.
“Red-cockaded woodpeckers won’t fly into heavily-wooded areas where they can’t see clearly enough to avoid hawks and other predators,” said Caldwell. “They need habitat that is almost park-like, so they can see clearly enough to avoid hawks and other predators. Basically, we want them to come, pair up and stay on the Piedmont Recovery Unit, so we are working to make the whole area as appealing as possible.”
The NWTF, Southern Company, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have partnered to make the entire PRU appealing for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other wildlife, including wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and white-tailed deer.
Using funds provided through a grant from Southern Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, biologists on the PRU will complete projects including planting longleaf pines, conducting prescribed burns, planting native warm season grasses and constructing firebreaks, rock fords and wildlife openings. Biologists also will monitor red-cockaded woodpecker pairs and insert artificial cavities in trees where the woodpeckers can nest.
“Everyone who uses the Oconee National Forest and Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge will benefit from the improvements made for red-cockaded woodpeckers,” Boozer said. “Hunters, hikers and birdwatchers all will enjoy increased wildlife viewing opportunities, and many species of wildlife will benefit from quality habitat.”
The Corridor of Flight project will continue improving the PRU for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other wildlife until June of 2009