The Return of the Brown-Headed Nuthatch: NE CASC PIs Help Restore Ecosystem, Evaluate Conservation Technique

Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Brown-headed Nuthatch

The Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Although it is a diminutive creature that typically spans only a few inches and weighs less than one-third of an ounce, the return of the brown-headed nuthatch to Missouri is an event of major significance. Extirpated from the state nearly a century ago when logging and fire suppression combined to eradicate 6,000,000 acres of shortleaf pine woodlands serving as its habitat, the songbird is now poised for a comeback due to the work of a diverse team of federal, state, and academic partners led by NE CASC principal investigators Thomas Bonnot and Frank Thompson along with their colleague Sarah Kendrick from the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

At the end of August, the team released 25 brown-headed nuthatches in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, where forest staff have worked for over a decade to restore approximately 100,000 acres of oak and shortleaf pine trees. Research conducted by Bonnot, research professor at the University of Missouri, and Thompson, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, demonstrates that habitat fragmentation would prevent the bird from repopulating the re-established woodlands on its own. As a result, the team formed a collaboration with the Ouachita National Forest and the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission to capture and fly songbirds from Arkansas to Missouri for reintroduction. Another 50 brown-headed nuthatches will be released in the Mark Twain National Forest in the coming year. 

According to Bonnot, reestablishing brown-headed nuthatches in Missouri will significantly advance the rebuilding of the Twain Forest's ecosystem. “The nuthatch creates cavities for their nests in dead pine trees,” he says. “And those cavities continue to be used by other bird species after the nuthatch moves on.”

Equally important, the nuthatch reintroduction project will allow Bonnot, Thompson and their collaborators to employ and evaluate the efficacy of assisted migration with regards to songbirds. “Assisted migration is widely known as a tool for helping species adapt to new habitats in the face of climate change, but it has rarely been applied to songbirds,” Bonnot says. “By monitoring the birds for two years following their release, we will be able to assess the overall health of the population and the extent to which the release has been a success. This project represents a unique experiment, then, in that it is simulttaneously helping to restore an ecosystem that was almost completely wiped out while also affording the opportunity to learn more about an adaptation method that will become increasingly important as the impacts of climate change intensify."

This research was recently featured on the University of Missouri website. Read the article here

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