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Missouri Woodpeckers

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

led to the demise of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which once lived in southeastern Missouri. The species decline was especially swift because a single breeding pair needs about three square miles of undisturbed forest for its territory.

Wood-boring beetles and grubs that infested dead and dying trees were the ivory-bill's principal foods. The loud, excited "yamp, yamp, yamp" calls it made were similar to the sound produced by a clarinet mouthpiece. It is unlikely that sound will ever be heard again in the U.S.

Our national will to save the ivory-billed woodpecker wasn't strong enough in 1948, when the last mature forest that supported these birds along the Tensas River in Louisiana was cleared for agriculture.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis)

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are somewhat different from other North American woodpeckers because they live in family groups called clans. The clans are composed of a mated pair, their offspring of the year and, occasionally, unmated male helpers. This amounts to a cooperative breeding arrangement where the clan excavates cavities in a cluster of trees for nest and roost sites and vigorously defends a 40- to 80-acre territory.

It takes two years or more to excavate a cavity because the building sites are always living pine trees, which have much harder wood than dead and decaying trees.

Above and below each cavity the birds also excavate tiny holes--resin wells--from which pine resin flows. The oozing, sticky resin helps keep climbing black rat snakes from reaching their cavities and preying on eggs and young. The advantage of all this hard work is that cavities excavated in living trees can last decades.

This southeastern U.S. woodpecker depends on open canopied, mature pine forests that are periodically thinned by fire. Populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers have been vulnerable to elimination, fragmentation or modification of those forests by people.

The species was extirpated from Missouri because wild fires were suppressed, and virgin short-leaf pine forests of the southern Ozarks were logged in the early 1900s.

The last reported red-cockaded woodpecker colony disappeared shortly after the last stand of virgin short-leaf pine was cut in the spring of 1946 along Highway 19, just south of Round Spring in Shannon County. The closest population to Missouri today lives in the western Ouachita Region of Arkansas.

HELPING Woodpeckers:

There are a few basic things urban and rural landowners can do to provide places for woodpeckers to feed and nest:

  • Don't cut down snags--standing dead or dying trees--that provide insect food and places to roost and nest.
  • Don't prune diseased or dead tree limbs if it's safe to leave them. They also provide insect food and places to excavate cavities.
  • Living trees provide replacements for snags which will eventually fall over and decompose. Three snags or more per acre should be left standing.
  • Let large logs lie. They provide habitat for the insects that woodpeckers eat.
  • Some species will make use of nest boxes if wood chips--not sawdust--are provided for them in the cavity and placed in a wooded location.
  • Destroy the nests of starlings and house sparrows. These non-native birds often take over the freshly excavated nest cavities of woodpeckers.
  • Place suet, which offers a source of quick energy, in small wire cages, nylon mesh bags or a short section of log drilled with several 1-inch-diameter holes and hung or attached to the side of a tree or pole. Note: suet becomes rancid and harmful to birds in temperatures higher than 70 degrees.
  • Black oil sunflower seed is consumed out of feeders by some woodpecker species.
  • Landscape your yard with native trees, shrubs and vines--especially nut-and-fruit bearing species

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