Locally extinct birds return to Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest

Missouri

The first Brown-headed Nuthatch released in 2020, representing 40 years of restoration. Photo taken just after release of bird. (Photo: Theresa Davidson)

An ambitious, decades-long plan has come to fruition, as Missouri naturalists may have restored a locally extinct bird species to Mark Twain National Forest. In the last two years, 102 brown-headed nuthatches have been returned to the forest, and it appears they have a good chance to re-establish a population. For Cody Norris of the U.S. Forest Service, it’s a dream fulfilled.

“Saying the birds have risen from the ashes like a phoenix would not be far from the truth,” he said.

According to Norris, the Forest Service and other agencies needed to implement several controlled burns over many years to clear space for trees that would be more hospitable for the nuthatches.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Missouri settlers cleared so much land that brown-headed nuthatches were eradicated from the region due to habitat loss.

When the U.S. Forest Service was founded in 1939, one of its primary directives was wildfire suppression. This led to the recovery of forests around the country by the 1970s, but the trees had changed from the open-pine woodlands (pre-settlement times) to densely packed hardwoods.

In the 1980s, rangers at Mark Twain and other employees in the Forest Service wanted to restore native animal species, but the landscape had changed so much that it was less welcoming. It took many years, but after the success of a small-scale experiment of prescribed burns and mechanical thinning, the Forest Service began implementing the strategy on a wider scale.

By 2012, Mark Twain National Forest was granted a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) project, which continues to this day. Since then, more than 140,000 acres of the forest have received mechanical thinning and prescribed fire treatments, which paved the way for the growth of open-pine woodlands and the return of the nuthatches.

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