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News and events

News & events

Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpeckers finish season by fledging 21 young birds

July 7, 2015

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Mike Wilson

The breeding season for red-cockaded woodpeckers at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve drew to a close with fledge checks completed during June and July. Thirteen breeding groups produced only 21 young, including 10 males and 11 females. The term “breeding group” is used because red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders where a breeding pair is often assisted in incubation or nest provisioning by helper birds. The 2015 reproductive rate was low compared to the past several years when young per pair has averaged 1.5. Five of the 13 breeding groups that laid eggs failed to fledge any young and one group never laid eggs this season. The lower reproductive output this season was due in part to new breeding pairs that have settled in lower quality habitat and/or are inexperienced. Inexperienced pairs seem to raise fewer young in their first few years. Even some of the long-standing breeding groups that have had a recent turnover of breeding individuals fledged fewer birds than usual. The groups that have retained the same breeding individuals for at least the last 3 years produced larger (3-4 young) broods.

The low reproductive output this season does not undermine the overall success of red-cockaded woodpecker population growth and habitat management at the Preserve. The number of potential breeding groups has almost doubled since 2010. Three new breeding pairs were established in the 2014 breeding season including a site pioneered without the facilitation of artificial recruitment cavities, a first in Virginia since the 1980s. Long term restoration of the habitat at Piney Grove by the Nature Conservancy along with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, has now provided red-cockaded woodpeckers with substantially more breeding and foraging opportunities than have ever existed at this site. This management has benefitted the entire suite of species that rely on the open-canopy southeastern pine ecosystem. The preserve harbors the greatest density of northern bobwhites, red-headed woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches, prairie warblers, and field sparrows in Virginia. The Piney Grove Preserve serves as a model for southeastern pine management within the region and, along with adjacent sites such as the Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and State Forest, forms the cornerstone for long-term ecosystem restoration.

The Center for Conservation Biology will continue annual monitoring of this population with the next activity being the winter census, during which all red-cockaded woodpeckers in the population will be counted to determine status and movement of individuals between groups.

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