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Woodpeckers And Humans

Woodpeckers have sometimes been regarded as pests. Sapsuckers occasionally cause damage when their horizontal rows of drillings girdle trees and prevent the free flow of sap and water. Pileated woodpeckers can damage wooden utility poles, sometimes requiring their premature replacement. Overall, woodpeckers provide more benefit than detriment to humans because they feed on injurious insects, provide nesting cavities for a wide range of other species of wildlife, and have positive aesthetics for birdwatchers and other people who enjoy sightings of these interesting and personable birds.

The populations of some species of woodpeckers have decreased greatly as a result of human activities. The American ivory-billed woodpecker may never have been very abundant in the North American part of its range, and it quickly declined when its preferred habitat of bottom land forests of angiosperm trees and swamps of cypress were cleared for agriculture or harvested for lumber. This species has not been seen in North America since the 1940s, and it is probably extirpated. The subspecies known as the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis bairdii) is also critically endangered, as is the closely related Imperial woodpecker of Mexico.

The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) occurs in old-growth pineforests in the southeastern United States. This species breeds colonially, and has a relatively complex social system, involving clan-helpers that aid in the rearing of broods. There have been large reductions in the pine forests that satisfy the relatively stringent habitat requirements of the red-cockaded woodpecker, because these ecosystems have been converted to agricultural uses, plantation forests, and residential developments. The diminished populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers are now extremely vulnerable to further losses of their habitat through human activities or because of natural disturbances such as wildfire and hurricanes, and the species is listed as endangered. To prevent the extinction of this species, it is necessary to protect suitable habitat, and to manage these protected areas sustainably. In other areas of suitable habitat lacking protection, it is necessary to greatly restrict the types A male Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis). JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.
of forestry that are permitted in the vicinity of known colonies of this endangered species.

Beyond the specific case of the endangered redcockaded woodpecker, intensive forest management poses a more general risk to woodpeckers. This happens because the birds require a forest habitat that contains standing dead trees (snags), in which they can excavate cavities, feed, and display. Forestry tends to greatly reduce the numbers of snags in the forest, because dead trees can pose a tree-fall hazard to workers, and because they take up space without contributing to the economically productive forest resource. This is especially true of forestry plantations, where large snags may not be present at all, therefore depriving woodpeckers of an opportunity to utilize these industrial forests. One of the sensible accommodations that will have to be made by foresters to encourage woodpeckers (and the many other species of birds and mammals that utilize dead wood in forests) will be the provision of snags in managed forests to allow the native animals to sustain breeding populations. This would mean the integrated management of the land for both forest products and for woodpeckers and other species of wildlife.

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