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RCW Management & Upland Wildlife

By Gene Carver, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Managing Alabama’s forests for the benefit of different wildlife species can be complicated. Often, habitat management tradeoffs must occur to get the specific benefits needed. In the case of red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) management, the benefits to many other forest wildlife species can be very positive. Managing for both the RCW and other upland wildlife species can be a winning proposition.

The red-cockaded woodpecker has very specific habitat needs. They only nest in cavities in living pine trees, preferably longleaf pines. The trees must be large enough for the RCW to excavate the nest cavity. The trees cannot be too crowded nor have too much woody vegetation--especially mid level trees--near them. Management objectives are generally to have a wide open, park-like stand of mid to old-age longleaf pine trees with a mostly herbaceous understory. Timber thinning and prescribed burning are usually the practices used to attain these objectives.

Those practices are also beneficial habitat management practices for most upland birds and mammals. Allowing more sunlight to get to the ground and controlling dense, woody vegetation with prescribed fire creates a greater diversity of food resources for most animals. Since the thinning and prescribed burning is usually restricted to the upper slope, ridge landscape, the mast-producing hardwoods on the lower slopes are retained. Management practices for the RCW will improve nesting cover and forage habitat for quail, turkey, and other ground-nesting birds. Open forest canopies improve diversity of migratory songbird habitats adjacent to dense hardwood canopies. Overall habitat quality for whitetail deer will improve with more available food and cover.

Currently in Alabama, this type of management is occurring on federal, state, and private land. The U.S. Forest Service is managing all suitable land on Alabama National Forests for RCWs. The benefits to wildlife are being realized on several Alabama Wildlife Management Areas on those national forests. The only two active RCW trees on state-owned land in Alabama are located on a recently acquired Forever Wild tract on the Coosa Wildlife Management Area in Coosa County. This tract is being managed to enhance the available RCW habitat and improve overall habitat for all wildlife species.

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources initiated the RCW Safe Harbor Program to assist and encourage private landowners to manage their pine forests for RCWs. This program provides management expertise and guarantees to landowners who participate. Managing for an endangered species does not have to reduce positive habitat enhancement practices for other wildlife species. You can do both and have a “win-win” situation.

For additional information on RCWs and wildlife management, contact Gene Carver, Wildlife Biologist, P.O. Box 27, Hollins, AL 35082.

For additional information on Alabama’s RCW Safe Harbor Program contact Mark Sasser, P.O. Box 301457, Montgomery, AL 36130.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.


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