Updates on Endangered Woodpeckers, Rails, Crows, and Sages

Several threatened and endangered bird species and populations in the United States have released news in the past few weeks. Here is a summary.

Red Cockatoo Woodpecker

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changing the red cockatoo woodpecker from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bird of the southeastern long-leaved pine forests has been the subject of restoration efforts for decades.

After abundant from New Jersey to Florida, west to Texas, and north to Missouri, the woodpecker had shrunk to just a handful of states by the 1960s, after more than a century of habitat loss. In the late 1970s, there was an all-time low of an estimated 1,470 groups of red-cockatoo woodpeckers. A breeding pair is joined by “helpers”, usually the males of previous broods, who help with the incubation and feeding of the next generation. Today, FWS estimates that nearly 7,800 clusters span 11 states from southern Virginia to east Texas.

FWS also proposes a special rule for the woodpecker under Section 4 (d) of the ESA, which is designed to tailor the protective measures necessary for the bird to recover. The rule prohibits accidental actions related to actions that would lead to further loss or degradation of woodpecker habitat. This includes effects on cavity trees, actions that would nuisance red-cockatoo woodpeckers during the breeding season, and the use of insecticides near clusters, which are groups of cavity trees used by a group of woodpeckers for nesting and sleeping.

“The red-cockatoo woodpecker is definitely a success story for the Endangered Species Act, and we appreciate the many efforts that forest owners have made to help preserve this species,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for American Bird Conservancy. “We are now reviewing the full downlisting recommendation and 4d rule to ensure that the woodpecker’s great advancement continues.”

“Audubon loves nothing more than celebrating a success story under the Endangered Species Act, and we have seen tremendous improvements in the management of the red-cockatoo woodpecker (RCW) and long-leaved habitat management,” said Julie Wraithmell, general manager of Audubon Florida. “Even so, we are glad that it will keep its threatened status and we are deeply concerned about what the future holds for RCWs, especially in the face of climate change.

“Hurricane Michael dealt a devastating blow to the long-leaved pine habitat of the central panhandle, home to the largest breeding population of this rare species. How will the RCW habitat develop in the future with increasing storm intensity and frequency? The memory of the lost ivory-beaked woodpecker in the southeast is a stark reminder that habitat is important, and it takes days to destroy what took decades and centuries to grow. Protection is always more effective and cheaper than recovery. Status determinations like this must take into account the climate impact to be truly complete. “

Eastern Black Rail

Yesterday FWS announced that the Eastern Black Rail is classified as threatened. Sometimes hiking, the Eastern Black Rail is known in 35 states east of the Rocky Mountains, in Puerto Rico, Canada, Brazil and in several countries in the Caribbean and Central America. It is one of four subspecies of Black Rail that live in salt, brackish, and fresh water swamps. The California Black Rail subspecies, which is restricted to central and southern California, western Arizona, and Mexico, is not included in this listing. Two other Black Rail subspecies found in South America are also not included in this listing.

Eastern Black Rail’s population has declined 75 percent in the past decade or two, the agency said. Conservationists say the bird should have been given an endangered status.

“They are one of the front-line species studying the effects of sea level rise,” Bryan Watts, professor of conservation biology at the College of William and Mary, told ABC News. “That really is what caused their catastrophic decline.”

He said the bird was nowhere to be found north of North Carolina.

Stephanie Kurose, senior species policy specialist at the Center for Biodiversity, said in a statement: “The refusal by federal officials to designate a critical habitat is a severe blow to these tiny creatures. If the rail is to have any chance of survival, we need to protect the coastal wetlands where it lives from polluting industries, urban sprawl and rising sea levels. “


About 100 ‘Alalā are in captivity. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global

The coalition of conservation partners working to restore the Alalā (also known as the Hawaiian Crow) looks to the future to address recent challenges that have affected the population of species found in the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Reserve (NAR ) on the island of Hawaii.

In response to recent deaths, including bird predators, mainly by Io (Hawaiian Hawk), conservationists are bringing the remaining alalā back from the wild to the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) conservation breeding program. After living successfully in the wild for 2-3 years, these birds will have knowledge of foraging, predator avoidance and other social behaviors that can be passed down to the birds living under the conservation breeding program, and will help with future recovery efforts.

“For the past three years it has been encouraging to see the released birds migrate into the wild. Foraging, shouts and flies in native forests, ”said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, biologist at DLNR’s Forestry and Wildlife Division (DOFAW) and coordinator of the ‘Alalā project. “It is important to ensure that these surviving alalā can pass on the skills they learned in the wild to future generations of the species. Although it is very difficult to get these birds back into the breeding program, this is an intermediate step in reviewing and adapting the species recovery program. “

Gunnison sage grouse

The Center for Biodiversity and Western Watersheds project is suing four federal agencies for inadequate protection of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse in the Gunnison Basin in western Colorado, where the majority of the remaining birds survive.

Conservation groups say the Gunnison Basin Candidate Conservation Agreement, signed in 2013 to minimize risk and damage through the approval of grazing, development and recreation agencies in the Gunnison Basin, is illegal. Due to outdated conservation measures that ignored a decade and a half of new information about the needs of the species, the treaty failed to protect the capercaillie, whose numbers in the basin have plummeted to historic lows, while authorities failed to implement the necessary conservation measures.

“The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is on the verge of extinction and we need all hands on deck to save these great birds,” said Ryan Shannon, a CBD attorney. “These federal agencies need to step up against livestock grazing and other threats that destroy the capercaillie before it’s too late.”

Since the Conservation Agreement was passed, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse population in the Gunnison Basin has declined dramatically from 3,149 in 2013 to just 1,667 in 2020 – a decrease of more than 40 percent in just six years.

“Bi-State” Greater Sage-Grouse

Late last month, four conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco to compel the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the “bi-state” population of Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The bi-state Sage-Grouse only lives in an area along the California-Nevada border and is exposed to numerous threats, including grazing, mining, and habitat loss. The population decline is particularly acute at the northern and southern ends of the bird range.

“Federal officials have failed to protect this particular bird and they must be held accountable by law,” said Lisa Belenky, an attorney at the Center for Biodiversity. “It’s worrying to see officials duplicating voluntary actions that haven’t worked, even as the population of Bi-State Sage-Grouse continues to decline. Without the legal protection of the Endangered Species Act, multiple threats will bring this beautiful wood grouse to extinction. ”

The bird was originally classified as Endangered in 2013, with 1.86 million acres of critical habitat proposed for designation. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned the proposal in 2015. In 2018, a federal court found that the agency wrongly denied protection under the Endangered Species Act to the bi-state Sage-Grouse and asked it to reassess the bird’s situation. The capercaillie was again proposed for protection, but federal officials refused protection in March 2020.

Sage hen populations in California and Nevada are isolated from other sage hens by unsuitable habitats and a previously highly developed habitat. There are only an estimated 3,305 birds left, well below the 5,000 threshold that scientists consider to be the minimum viable population.

Efforts to protect the birds, including installing flags on barbed wire fences and vegetation removal projects, failed to stem their decline. Federal scientists predict localized extinctions at the north and south ends of the range. Scientists also estimate that occupied habitat has already decreased by more than 136,000 acres in the past 11 years.

The conservation groups that have filed the lawsuit are Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians.

The judge protects nearly 1 million acres of sage and capercaillie habitat

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