Dendroecological investigation of red-cockaded woodpecker cavity tree selection in endangered longleaf pine forests
Old-growth longleaf pine (Pines palustris) is a keystone/foundation species for 29 threatened or endangered species in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis; RCW) and endangered longleaf pine have an established ecological association. Here, we explore differences in climate/growth response and radial growth disturbance events in trees with RCW cavities compared to non-cavity trees in the Sandhills Gameland Reserve in North Carolina, USA. Using standard dendrochronological techniques, we collected and analyzed core samples from trees selected by RCW for their cavities (RCWC) and adjacent control trees (RCWCo) that had no visible cavity. We developed RCWC and RCWCo tree-ring chronologies that allowed us to examine if climate vulnerability is a component of the RCW selection process for their nests. Specifically, we investigated climate/growth responses, radial growth suppressions, and physical characteristics of both tree types through a comparison of tree age, latewood radial growth measurements, and number of resin ducts. For long-term climate response (1910-2018), we found no significant differences between RCWC and RCWCo trees. However, we identified temporal differences in climate/growth relationships between RCWC and RCWCo as well as significant differences in the number of suppression events and spatially-grouped suppression events. For tree physiology, we found more resin ducts during 1950-2018 in RCWC trees. Our dendroecological-based investigation examines multiple factors in addressing the question of why RCWs select specific longleaf pine trees for cavities, which may help improve conservation efforts for RCW and longleaf pine.