ARCHITECTS OF EVOLUTION
Woodpeckers aren’t just about diversity in the forest, however. Their impact on the world around them goes way beyond that, as species become dependent upon their existence. Though evolution may largely be a survival strategy in the face of catastrophe, it is also the handiwork of time that shapes, mutates and creates.
Outside of the fire-prone pine savannas and the impenetrable jungle-like pocosins of this coastal plain, we move into the bottomland hardwood swamps. This is a landscape of giants. Where bald-cypress reach toward the heavens with outstretched arms and are dated through core samples back to the Roman Empire. Where the gnarled and twisted tupelo gum swell at the base to diameters of 10 feet or more. Red maple punctuates the understory, joined by the likes of buttonbush and highbrush blueberry. This land-scape is neither land nor water, but some kind of tannin-stained blackwater hybrid of the two.
An ivory-billed woodpecker. Credit: Cornell Lab of Orinthology.
The tide of sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers from these remote swamps continues across the South. Known as the “Lord God Bird” by those whose habitats overlapped the habitats these birds once haunted, the name was given for the exclamative reaction that people would have when they saw one of these pterodactyl-sized woodpeckers sail past with a 3-foot wingspan.
Down in Louisiana, the last-known living pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers carved out cavities that measured 5 1/2 inches tall by 4 inches wide. But, that was the 1930s. And, an ivory-billed sighting has yet to be confirmed since. Optimism remains, of course. For as Emily Dickenson once wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers, that perches in the soul. . .”
We can only speculate today, but everything from barred owls to wood ducks most likely evolved to suit the engineering handy work of the old ivory-billed woodpecker. Today, they are all but gone. But, the pileated woodpecker remains, and seems to have had no qualms about picking up were the ivory-billed left off in the world.
It’s a testament to the importance of woodpeckers in the forested world when we can begin to identify select species of animals that have literally evolved to keep pace with the size of these birds. With wood ducks and barred owls sized for ivory-billed woodpeckers, for instance, and screech owls fitting neatly into red-cockaded holes across the longleaf ecosystem, we quickly realize the significant role these birds play as ecosystem engineers, and, dare I say, the architects of evolution in some cases.
THE INTRICACIES OF CONSERVATION SUCCESS
creating a nesting cavity. Credit: Jared Lloyd.
It’s quite a lot to take in for me sitting here in the wiregrass, leaning back against a fire- blackened pine tree as I watch this family of red-cockaded woodpeckers sail in and out to feed their young. The importance of woodpeckers. Their outsized role in the world. The unsuspecting bigness of something so small. The interconnectedness of an ecosystem, intricately woven together like delicate cotton fibers of a Navajo rug. The impermanence of it all. The fact that if we cut but one of those fibers, everything begins to unravel at our feet. And it is at our feet that it all unravels these days, for we are the ones holding the scissors.
The impact that woodpeckers have on their associated forests is undeniable. Some, like the red-cockaded, engineer ecosystems in powerful ways by functioning as the only species capable of building homes in their forest. Others,
like the pileated, have taken over the roles of now extinct species, chopping open giant cavities in trees and creating a surplus of potential homes for those animals of the forest too large for anything smaller.
The longleaf ecosystem once encompassed some 90 million acres across the southeast. These trees stretched from Virginia, down along the coastal plain of the southern states, wrapping around much of Florida, and finally coming to an end in eastern Texas. Today, the longleaf pine has been clear-cut down to just 3 percent of its original range, hanging on in a handful of preserves. As conservation groups, such as American Forests, fight to both protect the remaining stands of longleaf pines, and reestablish this ecosystem across the Southeastern U.S., we find that the unsuspecting red-cockaded woodpecker has, in so many ways, become the poster child of longleaf conservation. To simply bring back the longleaf pine is not enough. Conservation success depends upon a healthy population of the red-cockaded woodpecker. For they, like fire, are the lifeblood of this forest.