Just north of Lake Pontchartrain we saw our first Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It was the bird I most wanted to see on our trip (with the exception of an Ivory-bill of course).
I first heard about Red-cockaded Woodpeckers north of the Arctic Circle, where there are few trees and no woodpeckers. We were paddling down the Firth River in Canada’s Yukon Territory, just east of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One evening a large herd of caribou crossed the river. The calves, a couple of weeks old, were whirled downriver by the strong current. They bobbed alongside their mothers like buttery-brown corks. Later, a grizzly killed a calf across the valley. We watched the drama while one of the other paddlers told us about another drama, a courtroom battle centered on Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
“Red-cockaded are the only woodpeckers in North America that nest in living pine trees,” Doug Honnold told us. “They need mature trees, generally 80 years or older. They chip holes around their nest cavities, which causes resin to flow out. The resin coats the trunk, creating a physical and chemical barrier to the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s main predator, rat snakes.”
It was hard to imagine tree-climbing snakes at nearly 70 degrees north latitude, but I was fascinated by a woodpecker that had evolved such an incredible means of protection. But of course, industrial humans also wanted the mature pine trees, and longleaf pines were logged to within an inch of the lives of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. With less than 3% of the longleaf pine ecosystem remaining, something had to be done.
And Doug Honnold was one of the people who did it. You see, Doug was the Earth Justice lawyer who took the US Forest Service to court over their logging practices in the habitat of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Jerry Jackson, a leading expert on both Red-cockaded and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was the expert witness who provided the scientific background for the case.
I wish I could tell the tale as Doug told it. He is not only a great lawyer; he is an excellent story-teller. We were all with him, in the warm, humid forests of the south and in the solemn courtroom – even though across the river a pair of timber wolves appeared on the tundra. To cut to the chase, Doug, Jerry – and especially the Red-cockaded Woodpecker – won the court battle. The Forest Service had to change its logging practices . . . and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have not become extinct.
To save a species is about as noble a thing as I can imagine. I felt privileged to be in the same campsite as Doug. And we all felt privileged to see Red-cockaded Woodpeckers still living in the forests of the south.