Locally extinct nuthatches return to Mark Twain National Forest

Staff Reports
Brown-headed nuthatch with caterpillar

After many years, 102 Brown-headed Nuthatches that were extinct have returned to Mark Twain National Forest. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers cleared enough land in Missouri that the birds became locally extinct due to loss of habitat, but over the past two years, 102 of these small birds have been returned to Missouri. 

And it looks like they have an excellent chance to re-establish populations. 

“Saying the birds have risen from the ashes like phoenix would not be far from the truth,” Mark Twain National Forest Public Affairs Officer Cody Norris said. “Returning fire to the landscape was a critical part of returning the birds to it as well, but took many years to figure that out, prove it and implement it.”

According to Norris, wildfire suppression was a primary directive when the national forest system in Missouri was established in 1939 to promote and protect forests. 

Preventing fire for decades led to the recovery of forests, but the trees in the forests had changed from the open-pine woodlands or pre-settlement times to densely packed hardwoods by the 1970s. 

Jody Eberly, in the 1980s, was a District Biologist on the Eleven Point Ranger District of Mark Twain National Forest. 

She and other Forest Service employees at the time were facing a difficult challenge. They wanted to promote and return native species, but the landscape had diverted from what the native species needed.

They dreamed about having a forest healthy enough that one day the Brown-headed Nuthatch could return to Missouri.

In 40 years, that dream has become a reality. 

This is the first Brown-headed Nuthatch that was released into Mark Twain National Forest in 2020, representing 40 years of forest restoration.  Photo taken just after release.

The journey started when Eberly and others worked closely with Forest Service researchers to analyze the situation and plan.

Eberly said, “It all started when we began to notice positive benefits to native species after some small wildfires had gone through the woods.”

She credited the initial ideas and progress to the creative group on the Forest that liked to think big and outside the box. 

The plan was to bring back open pine woodlands to pave the way to return native flora and fauna, including the Brown-headed Nuthatch, someday. 

But to do it, they theorized, they needed to bring fire back to the landscape. 

According to Eberly, local projects started and prescribed burning was used along with mechanical thinning to see if shortleaf pine could once again be established as a dominant tree-type on parts of the forest. 

Researchers studied the effects of the treatments and found encouraging results. By the ‘90s, mindsets were beginning to change, and people realized that fire could sometimes be good and were crucial to many native species and healthy forests. 

“We started on a small scale with 125 acres, which seemed big to us at a time when wildlife projects were more on the 10-acre scale,” Eberly said. “I believe the first experiment was on Grassy Pond, where we saw post-fire results bring wildlife out of the hollow bottoms and upon the rest of the landscape.”

Once foresters and biologists saw the positive response to the opened forest canopy, things grew from there with native vegetation and animals. 

In the early ‘90s, the Forest Service joined with Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, The Nature Conservancy, American Bird Conservancy, and other partners to expand their work. 

According to Eberly, there was enough momentum to try this on a large landscape to replicate pre-European forest-type, which led to the Pine Knot project. That project took longer because it was a much larger acreage, but it showed even more promising results.

The success of these initial projects led to legitimizing prescribed fire as a management tool and incorporating it into the 2005 Mark Twain National Forest Plan, the overarching management document for the Forest. 

A few years later, in 2012, the Forest was granted a proposal to have a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration project in the area. 

The Missouri Pine-Oak Woodlands Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration project began that year and continues through today. 

The Mark Twain National Forest project accelerated the restoration rate, and about 67,000 acres have received both mechanical treatments and at least two prescribed fire treatments since 2012, which continues through today.

Another 80,000 acres within the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration project has benefited from the application of just prescribed fire. Researchers monitored the project area and determined that enough restored habitat existed to support the reintroduction of Brown-headed Nuthatches. In 2020 and 2021, a multi-agency effort led to 102 small birds being returned to the Forest. 

When Eberly first heard about the reintroduction, she knew she had to be there. As an ecologist, she understood that nature moves much slower than human time, and some changes take centuries. 

Seeing this take place in her life seemed almost unreal. She contacted Sarah Kendrick, Missouri Department of Conservation State Ornithologist, and asked to be at the release of the nuthatches. 

Sarah took me out there, and I was overwhelmed with joy watching the birds fly from people’s hands and into the woods,” Eberly said. “This was the culmination of many people putting in many years of hard work and sweat on tough projects, and having those birdies go into that habitat that we envisioned those many years ago gave me a true feeling of completion.”

Eberly retired as the Forest’s Fire Management Officer a few years ago. 

She was just one of many that worked to see the decades-long dream of natural resource restoration come true. 

She was part of prescribed fire returning to the landscape during her career, which helped lead to an extirpated species return home.

The many cooperators involved in the forest restoration and return of the Brown-headed Nuthatch proved that enormous challenges could be overcome with patience, perseverance, and a willingness to work together, and they made at least one person’s career dream come true. 

“I am so thankful for all the work that everyone put into this,” Eberly said.