Hurricane Hugo took a devastating human toll, but its victims also included rare and endangered birds such as the Red Cockaded Woodpecker, which lost one of its few remaining habitats in the killer storm.
"Some endangered species really took a heavy hit by Hugo," said Rudy Rosen, a biologist for the National Wildlife Federation, which along with several government agencies has been trying to catalog the loss.Perhaps no endangered bird fared as badly as the Red Cockaded Woodpecker, a tiny bird that conservationists have been trying to save from extinction for nearly two decades. In recent years its decline had been halted with an estimated 2,000 woodpecker colonies found mainly in three national forests.
One sanctuary for about 500 woodpecker colonies was the 250,000-acre Frances Marrion National Forest just north of Charleston, S.C., where Hugo roared ashore last month.
"The forest was just wiped out. Trees on the ground, twisted and uprooted," said Rosen. He said anywhere from one-fourth to perhaps as many as three-fourths of the endangered woodpeckers in the forest may have been killed. Those that lived through the storm may not survive because most of the aging trees that were their habitat no longer stand, he continued.
"We have lost potentially forever one of the most viable populations of the Red Cockaded Woodpecker at a time when the population is declining," said Rosen. The only other significant habitats for the woodpeckers are national forests in Mississippi and Florida.
The old-growth pine trees at the Marrion forest, which the woodpeckers called home, were especially easy targets for Hugo because many already had been weakened by the woodpecker's boring of holes for nests.
Even before Hugo raced onto the U.S. mainland, its victims in the Caribbean included the rare Puerto Rican wild parrot. Before the storm, 47 of the endangered birds were known to live in the wild on the island.
"To date we have been able to locate 23 of the birds," said Rosen. He said about 80 percent of the bird's habitat was defoliated when Hugo whipped across the island.