Military properties throughout the pine-covered Southeast are perfect places for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker to make its home.
“The amount of land that the military is managing and managing well, there are all sorts of initiatives for sustainable lands and sustainable training,” Fort Jackson wildlife biologist Nicole Hawkins said. “One of my jobs is to make sure that our mission — which we’re required to do — of protecting certain species, works well for the Army to train.”
Soldiers training at the fort outside Columbia occasionally see the woodpeckers when they’re out in the post’s wooded areas.
“The trainers actually like the habitats that we’re managing,” Hawkins said. “Most of the things they do when they’re walking on the landscape and training on the landscape are not harmful to the red-cockaded woodpecker.”
The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as an endangered species when the Endangered Species Act passed in 1970. Habitat loss across the growing southern states has reduced the bird’s population, although it has rebounded in recent years to roughly 12,000 nationwide.
“It’s been a long road that we’re progressing and the populations are growing,” Hawkins said. “The military has had a big role in that. Fort Jackson’s population is not as significant as some of the other ones but places like Fort Bragg, Fort Stewart, Eglin Air Force Base, Fort Benning, have contributed heavily to the recovery of the species.”
You could say Hawkins is an expert in the red-cockaded woodpecker. She wrote her master’s thesis on the bird’s existence at Eglin Air Force Base. She came to Fort Jackson 12 years ago after working with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Hawkins said the longleaf pine forest preferred by the woodpecker is disappearing in the southeast. Only three percent of the original longleaf pine ecosystem remains intact.
“Open, park-like habitat, that’s what this species prefers and multiple other species that live in the ecosystem,” she said. “Outside of tropical rainforests, the longleaf pine forest is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. So we’re doing what we can to restore that ecosystem to its natural condition.”
Hawkins and her team closely monitor the birds and their movement within Fort Jackson.
“We band the chicks during the spring,” she said. “They get an aluminum band from the Fish and Wildlife Service that has an individual identifying number and we band them with individual color combinations so we can ID each bird and track their survival.”
Their work has paid off. When they started monitoring the red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Jackson, seven pairs attempted to nest. In 2018, the birds hatched 150 eggs and fledging 62 birds — a significant increase over the 35 that fledged last year and the 42 that fledged in 2016.
“We had a record year in everything that we track from clutch size to how many we band to how many survived to how many groups nested,” she said. “I’m happy to see these numbers because we are actually exceeding the rate of increase that we are expected to have, which is five percent on average annually.”
2018 began with 44 active bird clusters, a seven percent improvement from the previous year. This brings Fort Jackson one-third the way to a goal of 120 clusters. Each cluster is an area of 5-10 acres with cavity trees for the woodpeckers to roost and nest. The total red-cockaded woodpecker population is approximately 170.
Hawkins said the work at Shaw Air Force Base has been even more successful.
“That population is saturated. It’s a smaller property than Fort Jackson but they’ve done a great job of managing the species there,” she said.
Because of the success of the program at Fort Jackson and other places, a species status assessment is currently being done. Fort Jackson also is home to two other endangered species its attempting to protect: smooth coneflower and rough leaved loosestrife.
Other species of concern have benefited from the habitat management at Fort Jackson. The post’s highest densities of quail are in red-cockaded woodpecker management areas. Fort Jackson reported a record number during its quail call count survey, which is done every year and the data is reported to DNR.
“There are multiple species and then there are numbers of concern that do very well on Fort Jackson and Poinsett (Bombing Range) and most of the other military bases,” Hawkins said. “It’s really interesting how much diversity has been saved just by having a military base because it doesn’t go under pavement.”
“We are training soldiers while bringing them back from the threat of extinction,” Fort Jackson Wildlife Branch Chief Doug Morrow said. “We are the stewards and want to get the species off the Endangered Species list.”
“Everybody came together and realized how we could work together to recover the species and make sure that the training missions can continue,” Hawkins said. “The training mission is first and foremost but we found a way to work it out.”