Clayton, North Carolina

Cavity-nesting Birds of North Carolina

By:Tony Nicosia

Many species of cavity-nesting birds have declined because of habitat reduction. In the eastern United States, where primeval forests are gone, purple martins depend almost entirely on man-made nesting structures. The hole-nesting population of peregrine falcons disappeared with the felling of the giant trees upon which they depended. The red-cockaded woodpeckers are currently on the endangered list, primarily as a result of habitat destruction. The wood duck was very scarce in many portions of its range, at least in part, for the same reason and probably owes its present status to provision of nest boxes and protection from overhunting.

Some 85 species of North Carolina birds excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees. Such trees, commonly called snags, have often been considered undesirable by forest and recreation managers because they are not esthetically pleasing, conflict with other forest management practices, may harbor forest insect pests, or may be fire or safety hazards. In the past such dead trees were often eliminated from the forest during a timber harvest. As a result, in some areas few nesting sites were left for cavity-nesting birds. Current well-intentioned environmental pressures to emphasize harvesting large dead or dying trees, if realized, would have further adverse effects on such ecologically and esthetically important species as: Eastern Bluebirds, woodpeckers, swallows, wrens, nuthatches and owls.

The majority of cavity-nesting birds are insectivorous. Because they make up a large proportion of the forest-dwelling bird population, they play an important role in the control of forest insect pests. Woodpeckers are especially important predators of many species of tree-killing bark beetles.

Several of the birds that nest in cavities tend to be resident (non-migrating) species and thus more amenable to local habitat management practices than migratory species. Nest holes may be limiting for breeding populations of at least some species. Bird houses have been readily accepted by many natural cavity nesters, and increases in breeding density have resulted from providing such structures, an indication that management of natural snags should be rewarding.

Removal of snags is also known to reduce populations of some birds. For example, removal of some live timber and snags in a North Carolina pine forest reduced cavity-nesting bird populations by 50 percent. Violet-green swallows, nuthatches, and northern woodpeckers accounted for much of the decline. A previously high population of swallows dropped 90 percent, and a low woodpecker population was eliminated. On an adjacent plot, where live trees were harvested but snags were left standing, cavity-nesters increased as they did on a plot where live trees and snags were undisturbed.


Typical NC Cavity Nesters