A milestone on the horizon for woodpeckers in the Red Hills

Nov 14, 2023

Few places in the Southeast can say that the red-cockaded woodpecker has never left the landscape. The Red Hills is among the lucky areas that can make this claim due to the historic use of fire and the unique forest management.

Despite this advantage, the Red Hills was not immune to the issues facing this bird entirely, including habitat loss and fragmentation.

However, a recent assessment of the woodpecker trees in the region provides evidence that the Red Hills may soon reach a critical conservation milestone.

As of our most recent survey this year, evidence suggests there are 269 territories occupied by woodpeckers, which is the most the Red Hills has seen in over a century.

Georgia DNR’s Christina Loke replaces a red-cockaded woodpecker nest insert.

Tall Timbers and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have worked together to reach a goal of containing 250 breeding pairs of woodpeckers in the Red Hills. While this might seem like a lot, it’s actually the lowest possible number to ensure a population persists for at least 100 years regardless of hurricanes, typical habitat change, and other common threats.

But reaching this modest goal has meant decades of hard work.

Woodpecker biologists have a nearly year-round task, including monitoring, installing artificial cavities, and translocations. While most of these techniques were ironed out by the late 90’s, recovery had been slow until the Safe Harbor program was established.

Safe Harbor enabled landowners to have these endangered woodpeckers on their properties with much fewer restrictions than would otherwise be allowed. This meant that woodpeckers could finally be reintroduced to areas of the Red Hills without onerous restrictions to private land owners.

With added help from the Georgia Ornithological Society’s Bill Terrell Avian Conservation Grant, Tall Timbers and Georgia DNR could get to work making and installing cavities across the region.

Every five years the Stoddard Bird Lab visits as many properties around the Red Hills as possible to assess how the birds are doing.

As a keystone species, these birds provide cavities to 30-plus other species from frogs, to animals as large as fox squirrels and wood ducks. With our last survey in 2018, that means that 2023 was our next survey year.

We look for signs of activity on woodpecker trees such as active sap flow which indicates daily use of that tree. While we have a few more trees to check out, results thus far indicate we are close to our goal.

Of the 269 territories where we’ve found established woodpecker colonies, 210 are paired with a mate with the remaining 59 having only a solitary bird.

The good news is that getting one bird to occupy a territory is the hard part. Them finding a mate is comparatively much easier.

With only 40 birds left to find their significant other, our conservation goal is just around the corner.

Within the next few years we expect the Red Hills to see its 250th breeding pair ensuring that they remain in our woods into the next century.

But even once we reached our goal, the Stoddard Bird Lab will continue to help the species grow in the Red Hills to spread the benefits they provide with their unique cavities.

When the woodpeckers are doing well, our pinelands become a more robust and diverse place for many of the species that call it home.


As of our most recent survey this year, evidence suggests there are 269 territories occupied by woodpeckers, 210 of them paired with a mate, which is the most the Red Hills has seen in over a century.

About the Author
Robert Meyer
Rob is a wildlife ecologist who graduated with a Masters degree from Mississippi State University in 2018. Since then, he has worked at the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers conducting research and managing the Red Hills Red-cockaded Woodpecker population. His studies have included many volant critters such as flying squirrels, birds, and butterflies.
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