CCB biologists recently finished the spring Red-cockaded Woodpecker population survey at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve with seasonal record high 51 birds. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker population has more than tripled since the Nature Conservancy purchased the land in 2000. The spring survey is intended to obtain a census of all individuals in the population as the breeding season commences. We place a unique combination of color-bands on each woodpecker when they are nestlings that allows for the tracking of individual survivorship and family lineages through time.
Among this year’s spring cohort of woodpeckers is a breeding male that is entering his 13th season since hatching. Thirteen year old birds are rare for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers although a few 15 year old birds and one 18 year old have been documented elsewhere in the woodpecker’s range. On average, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at the Preserve only reach an age of 2.5 years before they are lost from the population. Breeding birds persist for an average 6 years. The next oldest bird at the Preserve is 5 years younger than this 13 year old male.
We banded this “old timer” woodpecker as a nestling in 2000 and he has stayed within the same breeding territory ever since. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cooperative breeders so a group of birds are typically composed of a breeding male and female along with helper birds that assist in caring for young and cavity excavation. Helper males often act as assistants for several years waiting for an open breeding slot in their natal territory or another nearby location. After fledging in 2000, this “old timer” remained as a helper until 2005 when the disappearance of both his parents provided an opening. Since 2005, this male has successfully fledged 19 young birds. He is also a grandparent, with 3 of his young moving to other sites on the Preserve and fledging 18 woodpeckers of their own from 2010-2012. In fact, it was 3 of the old timer’s direct progeny that paired with other birds to pioneer 3 new breeding sites on the Preserve. This included last year’s new breeding territory that pushed the Preserve total to 10 breeding pairs.
Like the other breeding males in the population, this old timer is currently engaged in season activities such as mating, maintenance of the nesting cavity, and chasing off competitor males vying for his breeding status.
Written by Mike Wilson
April 16, 2013