Naturalists’ dream made reality with 102 birds returning to MTNF

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.

By Cody Norris

In the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers cleared enough land in Missouri that Brown-headed Nuthatches became locally extinct due to loss of habitat.

Over the past two years, 102 of these small birds have been returned to Missouri, and it looks like they have a good chance to re-establish populations.  

Saying the birds have risen from the ashes like a phoenix would not be far from the truth. Returning fire to the landscape was a critical part of returning the birds to it as well; but it took many years to figure that out, prove it, and implement it.

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

Preventing fire for decades led to 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.

In the 1980s, Jody Eberly 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 just 40 years, that dream has become a reality.

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

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

She attributed the initial ideas and progress to the creative group of people 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 for the return of 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. Local projects were begun, and prescribed burning was utilized along with mechanical thinning to see if shortleaf pine could once again be established as a dominant tree-type on parts of the Forest.  

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