Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
In the southeastern United States, it resides year-round in mature pine forests, living in "clusters" for nesting and roosting. The destruction of its habitat has completely extirpated it from New Jersey, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Maryland. It occurs from the very eastern edge of Texas eastward through the gulf coast states to central Florida and north just into southeastern Virginia. Its distribution is patchy, and most populations are isolated, many in tiny remnants, like the woodpeckers in Virginia, Texas, and southeastern Oklahoma.
This bird's life is centered on large, open pine forests that are maintained by natural fires occurring about every 1-5 years. Mature, live pine trees (75-100 years old) are required in order to provide ample foraging surfaces and to hold nest and roost cavities, which are typically located close together in an area called a cluster. The forest must be large enough to accommodate the clusters, additional foraging areas, and connections to other clusters, where young birds can find mates and suitable habitat. Long-leaf pine is the favored tree species, but other pines are used: loblolly, pond, shortleaf, and Virginia.
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers forage in a wide variety of pine species and especially favor areas that contain large trees with loose bark. In noisy flocks, sometimes with other species like the Carolina Chickadee or the Brown Nuthatch, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker tends to segregate by sex, with males concentrating on the trunk and upper branches and the females on the main trunk. They feed on adults, larvae and eggs of insects (ants, centipedes, termites, and wood roaches) that they find by flaking bark from the tree with their bills and feet. The diet also includes blackgum fruits, blueberries, grapes, pine seeds, poison ivy fruit, and wild cherries.
Scattered in a pine woodland, nest clusters, which contain family groups of about 3-4 individuals, reflect the fascinating cooperative nesting behavior of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Younger males (rarely females) help the cluster's one breeding pair with incubation and feeding. Young females almost always disperse to new cavities or clusters to breed. Monogamous and lifelong pairs form when an unpaired female finds an unpaired, breeding male at an active cluster. Cavities can take several years to construct in live trees and are frequently reused. Above and below the cavities, resin wells are drilled and the resulting sticky layer of pine pitch coating the trunk protects the birds and nests from predation by rat snakes.
In a hole excavated by the breeding male, usually 33 to 43 feet above the ground, the female lays 3-4 white eggs on a pile of wood chips. Naked, blind, and helpless, the chicks hatch in only 10-11 days and huddle closely, with their heads resting on each other. The young fledge in about 1 month and receive supplemental food for another 2 to 5 months. Males tend to remain with the family group longer and may remain as helpers for up to 8 years.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is non-migratory, and individuals rarely wander outside its traditional range.