The first red-cockaded woodpeckers to be hatched in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in at least four decades were welcomed in early May by biologists.

Two of three chicks survived and have since been seen flying around with their parents. The woodpeckers are an endangered species.

“It’s a real milestone,” said Bryan Watts, director of The Center for Conservation Biology, and a first step in establishing a population of the swamp’s once indigenous bird. It’s also part of a larger recovery effort that includes a growing colony in Sussex.

“We’re sort of holding the line up here from keeping the species from contracting further south,” Watts said.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a small, black and white bird named for the male’s flash of red feathers. They’re unique in that they carve their homes in live trees and mate for life, though young are raised by a collaborative group.

The birds once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the Southeast and as far north as New Jersey, biologists say. But logging, development and forestry practices reduced the bird’s habitat and sparked a 20th century decline.

The species was listed as endangered in 1970, and hadn’t been seen in the Great Dismal Swamp since 1974. Public and private agencies have been working for years to get the population back up. The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex is the only other Virginia enclave and home to 70 birds broken into 14 breeding groups, Watts said.

Over the past two years, 18 woodpeckers have been released into artificial roosts in the Great Dismal Swamp, relocated from populations in North and South Carolina. There were slim hopes the five remaining birds – two males, three females – would reproduce this year.

“But the birds worked it out,” Watts said.

Two nests with eggs were discovered initially. Three chicks hatched in the first nest on May 13, but one bird was grossly underweight and died, biologists said. The second nest was found devoid of eggs or babies. Biologists suspect a snake got them before they hatched.

Colored leg bands, which the surviving birds got at 7 days old, help scientists track them, according to Watts and Jennifer Wright, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The birds are featherless and rubbery at that age – primitive looking and golf-ball sized – yet still flexible and hardy, Watts and Wright said. The chicks’ eyes are initially closed. They can only discern light and dark, which makes them easier to extract from the nest.

Still “you want to be careful,” Wright said. “It’s all by feel.”


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