Coast to Coast: Protecting Pine Forests in the Eastern Carolinas

Coast to Coast” is a summer blog series highlighting some of America’s most imperiled wildlife. By using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new state-by-state endangered species map, we will tell  stories about native plants and animals in unique landscapes where Defenders will be focusing its conservation efforts in coming years.


Imagine hearing the echo of this sound throughout the mature long leaf pine forests of North Carolina’s Sandhills. You glance up in a tree and spot the source: a small bird with zebra-like feathers, drilling a hole in a live pine in search of a tasty ant. You check your guidebook. While the species is named for an almost invisible flash of red on the male’s head, it’s the white cheeks and black hood that give it away.  Drilling away on a summer’s evening, the red-cockaded woodpecker is unaware of the dangers lurking all around.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is endangered throughout its territory, from the coastal Carolinas to the eastern edge of Texas, because of its fondness for live pine trees. Long leaf pine forests once covered most of the southeastern  United States—more than 90 million acres. Now, only a few thousand acres remain, with much of the old pine forests being lost to residential development, agriculture, and golf courses.

While still found in much of its historic range, the woodpecker’s habitat is now so fragmented that fewer than 14,000 individuals survive in just a few places where once more than 4 million used to thrive. Despite this drastic decline, there is still hope.

Some populations have begun to recover thanks  to a collaborative effort of conservation organizations and the U.S. government. The North Carolina Sandhills Conservation Partnership (NCSCP) began in 2000, and in the following years, the partners agreed to protect this crucial land. This effort was declared a success in 2006, five years earlier than expected, when the partnership achieved its primary goal of having one population of more than 1,000 potential couples and 10 populations of more than 350 potential mates.

Red-cockaded woodpecker, © U.S. Marine Corps

Red-cockaded woodpecker (© U.S. Marine Corps)

By taking action, not only did the red-cockaded woodpecker benefit, but plenty of other species as well. Long leaf pine forests are home to nearly 60% of the amphibian and reptile species in the southeast region such as the spotted salamander and black king snake. More than a hundred other endangered or threatened species, like the fox squirrel and the gopher tortoise, exist in these precious areas

Despite significant progress to date, the red-cockaded woodpecker remains a high conservation priority in North Carolina. The state continues to pursue “safe harbor” agreements to encourage private landowners to maintain habitat on their property by offering financial and technical assistance. Defenders is also working across the Southeast to make sure that all landowners are doing their part to conserve red-cockaded woodpeckers and the critical habitat they and other wildlife need to survive.

As exemplified by the NCSCP, protecting these areas takes collaboration. It will take all of us working together to restore this species and eastern longleaf pine forests to their former glory.

To learn more about the red-cockaded woodpecker, watch this short video from the USFWS showing collaborative efforts to protect this special species.