Extirpated from Missouri for nearly the past century, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has made a comeback through modern science at the Mark Twain National Forest.
Dependent upon shortleaf, loblolly, slash, and longleaf pine as well as prescribed burns, the ecosystem for both the nuthatch and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker spared the mature trees needed where the land was thinned in wooded openings. This was once the land of grazing ungulates like the bison and elk, as well as the Wild Turkey.
After the Native Americans were driven west by settlers, the perfect ecosystem turned into the choked-out modern forest that many people are familiar with these days. It took a great deal of work, including timber sales to local logging operations to reduce the forest canopy to allow a little sunlight to permeate. Local mills purchased the lumber for flooring, pallets, mulch, wooden matches, and many other necessities. Jobs were also added to the economy with the trickle-down effect. It was a win-win situation for everyone concerned.
Late last summer, this area was repopulated with nearly four dozen Brown-headed Nuthatches dressed in radio transmitters, complete with elastic harnesses. It took a decade to restore these woodlands to a natural, original state. This year, about the same number of the species will be added to the number and hopefully, a breeding population will be formed.
Not only has this restoration been good for the nuthatches, but other birds like Bachman’s Sparrow, Pine, Kentucky, Prairie, Blue-winged Warbler and others came to the area as well for this assisted migration project. Savannah, open woods, and grasslands only beckon the species that would benefit with the widely scattered trees. It came with a huge price through grants to enhance forest management, reduction of wildfires, and the health of watersheds. Prescribed burns every three to five years will help to keep the understory open, so less work will be required to keep it maintained.
Surprisingly, no short distance migrant Brown-headed Nuthatches were interested. Though a weak flier, the nearest birds in the Ouachitas of Arkansas were not willing to travel the 200 miles to colonize Mark Twain National Forest. Fortunately, translocated birds from the Ouachitas were perfectly happy there. Larger areas of the national forest were thinned and burned for all the birds to move around, and so far, everything is looking good for them.
Since a warming climate prompted this activity, it helps them move north as necessary in a fragmented landscape.
Is restoration worth it? Unequivocally, yes. It will help keep birds of the east on track with a normal northern migration in the future leg of their journey. What happens next is only another story in helping to save our birds as humanity should be doing.
Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.