For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News

Original Air Date: Sept. 23, 2004

Bad News: Bald Eagles have been succumbing to West Nile Virus, and foggy weather in Duluth and Milwaukee have been killing migrants. Good News: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers may be more resilient than people thought.

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Birds in the News, September 23, 2004

There’s good news and bad news about birds this week. On the sad side, at least four bald eagles from Minnesota and Wisconsin have died from West Nile Virus this year, according to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. Although raptors have been considered susceptible to the disease, not many bald eagles are known to have had it, according to Dr. Patrick Redig, the center’s director. “We were thinking they might be relatively resistant to it,’‘ Redig said.

But in the last two weeks of August, four adult bald eagles with neurological problems such as head tremors and seizures were brought to the Raptor Center. The eagles had been found near Bemidji, and near La Crosse and Brule, Wis. After other problems were ruled out, the eagles were euthanized and brain samples tested. All were determined to have West Nile virus.

In other sad news, there were lots of reports of birds that were injured or killed bonking into buildings in Milwaukee and Duluth during foggy migration conditions this week. Most of the birds were thrushes and warblers.

On the happier side, From Joe Neal, part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker recovery team, here’s an amazing TRUE story involving the effort to bring Red-cockaded Woodpeckers back from the edge of extinction in Arkansas and Louisiana. These handsome little birds nest in mature long-leaf pine. When they peck their nesting hole, black pitch oozes from the tree, and the sticky coating protects their eggs and nestlings, and sleeping adults, from snakes and raccoons. Unfortunately, fully 99% of the mature pine growth in the southeastern United States is gone, and with the pine went the woodpecker. Fortunately, unlike the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Red-cockaded is still holding onto survival, but is very endangered.

Anyway, now that so much habitat has been lost, the normal dispersal of female Red-cockaded Woodpeckers has become difficult, due to so many huge areas with unsuitable habitat. This leads to isolation and eventual extinction of small populations that under former habitat conditions were healthy.

In 1995, a Red-cockaded Woodpecker team banded a juvenile female in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas. This bird received a permanent metal band on the right leg, plus a color band on the right, and two color bands on the left. Subsequently, this bird “disappeared.” Later, Forest Service biologists on the Winn Ranger District in Louisiana, spotted this same bird there– ~210 air miles away! This new Louisiana resident found a mate and nested, and reared several batches of young woodpeckers in the following years.

Then, last week, fully nine years after the bird moved from Arkansas to Louisiana, the same biologist who had banded the woodpecker learned about an unexpectedly active nest in an area Ouachita National Forest. They got the band colors, which did not mesh with any in use on their forest. Checking in a wider area showed this bird had come from Louisiana! It was not the original female from 1995; it was her granddaughter. This bird had retraced the 210 air miles, and taken up residence on the Ouachita NF just two miles from where her grandmother had started life!

Joe Neal writes, “the optimist in me says that no matter how much we damage habitat, our fellow creatures retain a will to survive–and to flourish. The biologist in me notes that the habitat where grand mother started life is being intensively managed on public lands to guarantee that there will be a flourishing population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in future years. The cluster of trees where the granddaughter returned includes artificial cavities installed by researchers as part of an effort to make the area more attractive to Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. It sheds fresh light on the sometimes dull and seemingly unproductive days working with Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. It suggests we can slowly retrace and improve the situation that lead to endangerment. To me it says we don’t have to be victims of the past. Actually and metaphorically, we can recover and move on.”