Innovation from Hugo’s devastation: the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker

A Moment of Science

One of the first species listed as endangered, red-cockaded woodpecker was once common throughout the southeast. Over time their numbers dwindled as the mature pine trees the build nest cavities in were cut down.

By 1970 there were fewer than 10,000 red-cockaded woodpeckers left.

A red-cockaded woodpecker creating a cavity which will become its home.
Photo credit: USFWS

However, federal timber practices changed once they were listed as endangered in 1973 and populations began to slowly rise inside designated recovery areas. One of those is the Francis Marion National Forest. In fact, The Francis Marion had the second largest population of these birds in the United States.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was on track to recovery, until 1989. Hugo.

While many areas in Charleston were hit hard that night, the forest bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath as winds gusted as high as 170 miles per hour. Craig Watson, his wife, and their less than a year old child huddled alongside 3 other families inside their home in the heart of the forest as Hugo’s winds howled outside. The next morning, they ventured out to find unimaginable destruction shown in home photos above.

“The forest supervisor flew over the national forest a few days later,” says Watson.

“It’s very emotional. He just said, Craig, it’s all blown down. It’s gone. It’s all gone. And those that weren’t down were twisted or broken. In one night we lost 87 percent of the cavity trees and 63 percent of the individual birds themselves.”

While many younger trees survived Hugo, it would take decades for them to be suitable homes as Watson explains, “without any kind of intervention, you were looking at 30 to 40 years before you’d see any increase in the population of red cockaded woodpeckers here.”

Devastation breed an opportunity for innovation. 


After Hugo Craig Watson (center) presents an artificial cavity to other Forest Service officials.
Photo credit: USFS

“All of a sudden, we had this opportunity to try this grand experiment of installing artificial cavity trees into much younger pine trees that would mimic the cavity of a red cockaded woodpecker.”

And it worked. Watson spent the next 8 years with the forestry service rebuilding habitats. Today there are nearly 3000 artificial cavities, homes for these birds which have returned to pre-Hugo recovery levels. This technology has now spread across the Southeast.

What was once a ‘grand experiment” is now a proven tool to create more habitats for this bird which may soon be delisted from endangered to threatened. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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