[Linked Image] Red-cockaded woodpeckers are not so different than human beings. Give them a safe, comfortable home and they’ll raise babies and prosper.

So thanks to biologists such as Michael Keys, who builds artificial cavities for birds to nest in, the imperiled red-cockaded woodpecker population has rebounded in recent years.

Now Keys is off to Belize in January to bring the same help to the endangered yellow-headed parrot, whose populations have been dwindling.

“Anything you can do to make it more likely that two birds will raise one or two chicks is a big deal,” Keys said. “We can’t come up with a good reason it won’t work for parrots; they seem so similar to red-cockaded woodpeckers.”

Keys, 40, is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; since 1998 he has been stationed at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. But he has been building artificial cavities for red-cockaded woodpeckers since 1990, having started his career at the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the 252,000-acre forest, leveling all the old growth trees – which had been home to red-cockaded woodpeckers.

The devastation in South Carolina was a harbinger of problems throughout the Southeast, which is home to all red-cockaded woodpeckers. Thanks to timber harvesting and development, the red-cockaded woodpecker population dwindled to fewer than 10,000 birds by the early 1990s.

The decline spurred biologists to experiment with artificial cavities, installing man-made structures into trees or drilling holes in trees, to encourage the red-cockaded woodpecker to take up residence and propagate. The practice has proved successful as the red-cockaded woodpecker population in the Southeast has grown to about 14,000 woodpeckers. The jump may seem small, but it is significant for red-cockaded woodpeckers, who mate for years and produce only a few eggs per nesting season.

On their own, red-cockaded woodpeckers are industrious, but slow, home builders. A young male will work on four or five homes at a time, as home building helps attract females – but will take 12 to 18 months per cavity. So the woodpeckers don’t object when humans help them out.

“(Artificial cavities) are very attractive to the birds,” Keys said. “It’s like if someone built a new house in your neighborhood and nobody moved in and it was free, you might move in.”

At Tall Timbers Research Station, in northern Leon County, Keys and other biologists began adding artificial cavities five years ago, after the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers “blinked out,” said Tall Timbers biologist Jim Cox. Today, Tall Timbers has about 60 artificial cavities – and nearly 30 red-cockaded woodpeckers.

“You hope (artificial cavities) is a temporary thing; you hope eventually forest management will get to a place where the birds maintain themselves,” Cox said. “But right now, the landscape is not mature enough. This bird requires 90-year-old trees. And there’s no way to get 90-year-old trees but to wait.”

Though dozens of biologists throughout the Southeast install artificial cavities, only a handful have done as many Keys, who has built several thousand artificial cavities – and has gained a reputation for craftsmanship.

Though an artificial cavity can be installed in about 30 minutes, Keys takes an hour or more to meticulously create a new home for woodpeckers. Using a small chain saw and chisel, he installs boxes that fit a tree so well that the man-made addition 20 feet up a tree is invisible to the casual observer. He also adds touches such as shaving away bark around the hole to make it difficult for rat snakes -- the bird’s chief predator – to reach the house.

“I’ve done a few. But it’s like painting by numbers compared to Van Gogh (Keys),” Cox said. “Mike is very careful with what he does and his approach is rare.”
On Jan. 20, Keys will take his craft to Belize, where he and two other scientists will spend two weeks trying to boost the yellow-headed parrot population in Payne’s Creek National Forest. The yellow-headed parrot has been under siege from development – and poachers. If trained while young, the yellow-headed parrot is one of the best-talking parrots. Thus poachers often raid the nests, putting a strain on another species that, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, has low reproductive rates.

The trio expects to build only about 10 boxes, because it will take longer to build boxes for the parrots, which are five times as large as the red-cockaded woodpecker. But if the project proves successful, the scientists hope to add many more artificial cavities in Belize.

“This is baby steps,” Keys said. “We need to find out if the parrots will use them before we start applying for grants to do more.”