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Extinct for 100 years, nuthatches are back

By Wes Johnson Springfield News-Leader

When elk were restored to their native habitat in Missouri in 2011, the 800-pound creatures thrived.

Now the U.S. Forest Service and Missouri Department of Conservation hope for an equally successful return of a creature that weighs only a third of an ounce but was similarly wiped out in Missouri due to habitat loss.

The brown-headed nuthatch lives in forests dominated by pine. The loss of habitat wiped it out in Missouri a century ago, but state and federal officials say enough pine forest has been re-established in parts of southern Missouri to bring the bird back.  [Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation]

Recently 25 brown-headed nuthatches were set free in restored pine woodlands in the Mark Twain National Forest. Their distinctive “rubber ducky squeak” may soon be heard again in the forest.

Because much of its pine tree habitat had been cut down, the four-inch-long songbird had been extinct in Missouri for more than 100 years.

Wildlife experts hope to change that, with the release of 25 birds last week with the hope to release more this week and 50 next year. Half of the birds are being tagged with radio-transmitters that allow scientists to track their movements.

The birds were freed in the Eleven Point Ranger District, between Winona and Van Buren.

“The goal of our research is to deliver the knowledge and tools that managers need for conservation,” said Frank Thompson, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Columbia. “However, we don’t often get to have such an immediate benefit to a species and ecosystem as restoring a population in an effort like this.”

Approximately 6 million acres of shortleaf pine and oak woodland once covered Missouri’s Ozarks. Today, that ecosystem covers closer to 100,000 acres.

Work by the Mark Twain National Forest to restore shortleaf pine and oak woodland accelerated in 2012, when the forest and partners were selected for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which includes state, federal and private partners and is restoring woodlands on several properties.

The Mark Twain National Forest site was chosen for the release because it is the largest area of open pine woodlands in Missouri.

"This project demonstrates the power of shared stewardship," said Mark Twain National Forest Supervisor Sherri Schwenke. "It took all of our expertise to bring the brown-headed nuthatch home, just as it takes all of us working together to accomplish everything we do in terms of restoration, recreation and timber."

Thompson’s research shows that many birds benefit from woodland restoration in Missouri, but the brown-headed nuthatch was still missing from this ecosystem as a result of its extirpation in the early 1900s.

A team led by Thompson, Sarah Kendrick from the Missouri Department of Conservation and Tom Bonnot from the University of Missouri determined that sufficient woodlands now exist in Missouri to support a population of brown-headed nuthatches, that populations in Arkansas were robust enough to supply birds to Missouri, but that nuthatches are not likely to make the return on their own because of the distance and habitat fragmentation.

They coordinated an effort to capture nuthatches in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and release them in Missouri. 

“So far the tagged birds are moving around exploring the woodlands and socializing in small groups as we would expect them to. All indications are they are doing great,” Thompson said.

Missouri’s restoration is part of a roughly 1-million-acre natural communities restoration target for Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma on public lands.  

“This effort is a great example of how when you bring back the habitat, you can bring back some of the species that were lost,” said Kendrick, the state ornithologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“Brown-headed nuthatches are pine specialists and excavate their own cavities in pine tree snags, or dead trees, every year,” Kendrick said. “By creating new cavities each year, these birds provide cavities for other cavity-nesters, like chickadees and titmice.”