Pine barrens at Dunns Creek State Park in Florida.
A pine barren after a prescribed burn at Florida’s Dunns Creek State Park. Too little too late for the Red-cockaded woodpecker?

In November of 1831, John James Audubon, artist George Lehman, and taxidermist Henry Ward complete their preparations to explore Florida. First though they must tear themselves away from the comfort and pleasure of Charleston, South Carolina. Audubon writes, “My friends had increased in number; they were in the habit of accompanying me in my shooting excursions; I was becoming very much attached to them; invitations poured in from various parts of the country; and I really believe that had I been willing, we might have remained there and in the neighborhood, if not all our lives, at least as long as would have caused a rare scarcity of the feathered tribes, in that portion of the Carolinas.” If Audubon searched the skies of Charleston today, surely he would be shocked by the scarcity of the feathered tribes.

The Barn swallow as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The Barn swallow as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.

Audubon, Lehman, and Ward board the schooner Agnes that is serving under the U.S. government as a packet ship. Sailing down the Atlantic coast from Charleston to Florida, Audubon notes a seemingly endless flock of Barn swallows. “For several days in succession, until the beginning of December; but after the first frost none were to be seen. These could not have removed many decrees [sic] farther south, for want of proper food, and I suspect that numbers of them spend the whole winter along the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico.” According to records today, the range of the Barn swallow is much farther than Audubon speculated. The birds practically cover the globe, from North America and the Gulf of Mexico into South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, seeking out barns and other structures in rural areas in which to build their nests.

The Eastern meadowlark as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
Eastern Meadowlarks appearing not “sooty” as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.

On the occasions that Audubon and his party are able to explore more inland, Audubon notices the pine barrens “filled” with Eastern meadowlarks. They looked “as sooty as the Sparrows residing in London.” The same can be said for the Downy woodpeckers flying from tree to tree in the pine barrens. Their breast and belly “are so soiled by the carbonaceous matter adhering to the trees, in consequence of the burning of the grass at that season, that one might be apt to take a specimen in that state, as belonging to a different species.”

The Downy Woodpecker as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
Unsoiled Downy woodpeckers as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.

Pine barrens once covered virtually all of the southeastern United States, from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and as far west as northeastern Texas. Indigenous people frequently set the pine barrens on fire to prevent a dense growth of other vegetation such as stubborn hollies, prickly vines of smilax, and impenetrable stands of palmettos. Towering over it all was the Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). Fire and high heat might weaken or even kill a Longleaf pine but only a few of the tree’s buds that the tree envelopes in a tight arrangement of needles. And for Indigenous people, an open understory below a forest of Longleaf pines allowed easier movement through the woods, improved the conditions for hunting, and encouraged the growth of plants bearing edible fruits and berries.

Longleaf pines thrived on the fires set by Indigenous people. They have failed though fending off the bulldozers and chainsaws unleashed on them by developers, farmers, and loggers. Most of where Longleaf pines once grew there is now crop fields and development. Or to provide timber harvests there is Slash or Loblolly or some other fast growing pine cultivar growing in lieu of Longleaf. Private property, urban sprawl, and valuable timber stands mandate fire suppression. For every loss of a soiled or sooty bird, there has also been the loss of the Red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Red-cockaded woodpecker as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The Red-cockaded woodpecker as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.

Audubon notes the Red-cockaded woodpecker “is found abundantly from Texas to New Jersey, and inland as far as Tennessee. Pine-barrens suit it best, and it is nowhere more numerous than in those of the Floridas, Georgia, and South Carolina.”

When nesting, the Red-cockaded woodpecker requires a tree, such as the Longleaf pine, to be alive. Yet the tree must be weak enough from either fire or disease so that the bird can excavate a hole in the tree for its nest. The nests are such an undertaking that a breeding pair normally relies on others, usually young from the previous year, to help with construction. Protection programs have resorted to building nesting boxes and installing them in the trees that the Red-cockaded woodpecker requires. Some of the birds have accepted the housing efforts, but not at a rate to prevent the Red-cockaded woodpecker from being considered an endangered species.