To walk with the animals, talk with the animals

By Catherine Doss, College of Science

Jeff Walters grew up on his family’s 100-acre homestead in eastern Ohio. Years later, his love of nature has taken this modern-day Dr. Dolittle around the world as he dedicates his life to conserving rare and endangered species.

“My family had me thinking I was supposed to be a doctor,” says Walters, the Bailey Professor of Biology at Virginia Tech. “I majored in biology in college as a way to study animals and nature. Then I thought I would be a veterinarian, because that involved animals. Then I had a classroom experience that was a revelation.”

One of Walters’ professors presented some of his studies of animal behavior.

“And that was it,” Walters said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do. My family did not think that was going to work as a career ... but it did!”

Today Walters is among the nation’s best-known and respected scientists in the field of conservation management, particularly in the protection of rare and endangered species of birds. He was one of only a handful of people called upon by Science magazine to secretly review evidence submitted by a team of ornithologists who claimed to have spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, a bird thought to be extinct. Release of the story eventually made international headlines and continues to be debated among bird enthusiasts.

Red-cockaded woodpecker

One of Walters’ most successful scientific conservation research efforts to date – and the one that could potentially impact the greatest land area – is the story of the red-cockaded woodpecker. About the size of the common cardinal, this woodpecker’s most distinguishing feature is a black cap and nape that encircles large white cheek patches. The male has a small red streak on either side of its black cap, called a cockade; hence the name.

The red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home in mature pine forests. Historically, its range extended from Florida to New Jersey and as far west as Texas. Gradually, more and more of these mature forests were cleared for private and commercial uses. Consequently, the woodpecker’s population was declining everywhere throughout the late 1980s. Today the bird is found in about 1 percent of its original range.

“Most people thought they were headed for extinction,” Walters says. “But now their numbers are increasing, and people say they think they can be recovered.”

A large part of this turnaround is due to a research effort headed by Walters that studied the bird’s population biology, specifically their nesting behaviors.

Decent living quarters

The red-cockaded woodpecker is unusual in two very distinct ways. First, they make their cavities in live pine trees, which means it can take years to make a single cavity. These small birds must excavate all the way into the inner hard wood of mature pine trees. Once they make a cavity, however, they may use it for years. This behavior is atypical of most woodpeckers, who make a cavity in a matter of weeks in hardwood trees only to use once and then move on.

“What this means, then, is that the cavities for the redcockaded woodpeckers become extremely valuable,” Walters says. “A bird will wait around and try to take over a cavity that another bird started. They become very territorial.”

The second unique trait about this species is that they live in family groups rather than in pairs like most birds do. Young birds sometimes stay with their mother and father for years to help them raise offspring.

“A certain fraction of the birds leave home the first year, but the rest stay at home and wait to either take over from Dad or move into a neighboring territory,” which is within approximately a two-mile radius of where the bird was born, Walters says.

“So what we had to do to build a population was to make more good territories that these birds could move into,” Walters says. “In other words, it was lack of suitable cavities that was keeping these birds from establishing themselves in new territories.”

Walters and his team set to work to design a cavity mimicking the ones painstakingly constructed by the red-cockaded woodpeckers. His research focused on populations of the bird in longleaf pine forests in the Carolina Sandhills, including Fort Bragg Army Base, on Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina, and at Eglin Air Force Base in northwestern Florida.

Using a power drill, they made intersecting horizontal and vertical tunnels to create a cavity with an entrance diameter of approximately 1.25 inches and a cavity chamber six inches deep in live pine trees. The trees had to be old enough to have sufficient hardwood. If the tree was too young and the chamber only went into sapwood, the living conditions could be deadly for the birds.

The true test of the effectiveness of these new dwellings came in 1989 when the team placed 20 of these man-made cavities in trees in the Carolina Sandhills. They placed them in pine forests that were ecologically suitable but that had never been inhabited by the birds. Within a year, red-cockaded woodpeckers were living in 19 of the 20 cavities.

Their results came just in time, because in September of that year, Hurricane Hugo blew through the eastern United States, causing millions of dollars in damage to the Carolinas and wiping out much of the birds’ territories in the Francis Marion National Forest. Walters’ team worked with the U.S. Forest Service to make more cavities for the birds.

“We figured if they hadn’t replaced the cavities, they would have lost 90 percent of the bird’s territories,” Walters’ says. “As it turns out, they lost only about 35 percent.”

Walters calls the red-cockaded woodpecker project his most rewarding to date. “In 1989, anyone you asked would have said these birds were doomed, and now their populations are increasing. To me, the most rewarding thing is to apply basic science to conservation and then follow through with the implications of the science to improve the conservation. It’s very exciting and gratifying.”

What’s next? A conservation decision

The final chapter in the story of the red-cockaded woodpecker has yet to be written, as the conservation of the species now becomes a political and societal battle.

“We understand the biology well enough now that we can recover the red-cockaded woodpecker to whatever level we want,” Walters says. “So now the question is: does American society want the bird or not? Is it willing to protect enough habitats?”

Walters and his research colleagues in the Avian Ecology Laboratory at Virginia Tech work to find ways of making different land uses compatible with conservation efforts.

For example, in the case of the red-cockaded woodpecker, Walters suggests maintaining mixed-aged forests versus mining all short-term timber harvest land. He says mixed-aged forest would maintain the ecology but would still allow some harvesting of timber.

Most efforts to save the woodpecker are on federal land. Recently, U.S. government and military officials, along with the Nature Conservancy, came together in a public event at Fort Bragg to officially declare the red-cockaded woodpecker population there to be recovered. It had passed the target of 350 groups, at which point, populations are considered to be self-sustaining.

“The species itself is still endangered,” Walters says. “But this is the first individual population to be recovered, which is considered an important milestone.”

The Laysan duck

Walters’ conservation efforts have taken him to remote locations throughout the world, such as Laysan, a 900-acre island in the northwestern-most part of the Hawaiian islands. To call Laysan remote is an understatement. More than 620 miles from Honolulu, it can be reached only by boat and is inhabited only by wildlife, including the Laysan duck.

These ducks are brown with a bright green-blue to purple speculum and white feathers around their eyes. They are capable of flight but are less likely to fly in escape response than mainland species of ducks. They feed on a wide variety of land and wetland vertebrates and are best known for their running/snapping brine-fly catching behavior.

“People used to think Laysan ducks were always only on this island,” Walters says. “But recently, fossil and historical data have revealed that they used to inhabit all the Hawaiian islands.”

What happened? Walters says that as Polynesians moved northward in the habitation of the Hawaiian Islands, they brought with them animals that would prey on the Laysan duck. Eventually, the species died off. Laysan has been their only home for the past 100 years.

The Laysan duck was listed as an endangered species in 1967. Laysan Island is part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and has very restricted public access. It is also designated as a Research Natural Area where state and federal biologists work closely together to ensure the well-being of the island ecosystem.

Working with the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, Walters is part of a research effort to reintroduce the Laysan duck onto other islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. By determining the duck’s specific habitat needs and recreating them on nearby Midway Island, the team has successfully started a brand-new population of Laysan ducks there.

“The Laysan duck was my second-most rewarding project,” Walters says. “Besides being fun to do, it was satisfying because I’ve always been very curious, and I just love to be in the field studying animals. What I’m best at is observing behavior in the wild, getting clues, and then actually turning that into something positive for conservation.”

President George W. Bush has designated a chain of nearly 1,400 miles of northwest Hawaiian islands, including Laysan Island, as a national monument, creating the largest protected marine reserve in the world.

To talk with the animals

In Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s story of Dr. Dolittle, the good doctor surrounds himself with animals of all kinds – the rabbits in the pantry, the white mice in the piano, the hedgehog in the cellar. Even Polynesia, the bird. They all live together in mutual respect and harmony, man and beast.

Jeff Walters’ dedication to studying animal behavior, to walking in the animals’ world and trying to see it as they do for the purposes of saving them and their future generations, has taken a delightful work of fiction and spawned from it a story of enormous scientific merit and real-life success.

The red-cockaded woodpecker makes its cavity in a live pine, and then keeps it for years. To get the birds to relocate, the researchers had to create cavities the birds would accept. This is a bird-made cavity. View the complete woodpecker photo at a larger size.

“We understand the biology well enough now that we can recover the red-cockaded woodpecker to whatever level we want. So now the question is: Does American society want the bird or not? Is it willing to protect enough habitats?”
– Jeff Walters

Longleaf pine forests in the Carolina Sandhills are where the red-cockaded woodpecker lives. Photo by Jay Carter.

Above, a view of 900-acre Laysan Island. Below, Laysan ducks. Photos by Michelle Reynolds.

“The Laysan duck was my second-most rewarding project. Besides being fun to do, it was satisfying because I’ve always been very curious, and I just love to be in the field studying animals. What I’m best at is observing behavior in the wild, getting clues, and then actually turning that into something positive for conservation.”
– Jeff Walters

This thumbnail is a portion of a photo of Mark Veksay and Jeff Walters releasing Laysan Ducks on Midway Island. These ducks are among the first brought from Laysan and released back into the wild. You can view the complete photo at a larger size.

Another of Walters’ projects involved the brown treecreeper, a bird found only in Australia. Read more about the treecreeper project.

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