Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Picoides borealis

(c) Mike Danzenbaker, www.avesphoto.com
  • PICIDAE
  • Woodpeckers
  • Piciformes
  • Carpintero de Florida
  • Pic à face blanche
Introduction

In the 1830's, John James Audubon reported that the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was "found abundantly from Texas to New Jersey, and inland as far as Tennessee." Since 1968, this relative of the Downy Woodpecker has been listed as Endangered. Because of this designation and its presence on many federal lands, it is probably the most well-studied woodpecker in the world. Among North American woodpeckers, the Red-cockade's cooperative breeding system is unique.

Bird Sounds
Appearance Description

The red "cockade" just above the male's ear is almost invisible in the field, so that separating the sexes is only reliable with a bird in the hand. This woodpecker is predominantly black and white with a ladder pattern on the back and large white cheeks, which are unique features among woodpeckers in its range. The larger and somewhat similar Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) and, less commonly, the smaller Downy Woodpecker (P. pubescens) may occur alongside Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Both of these close relatives lack white "cheeks," have a large white patch on their back, and sport a red spot on the back of the head in males. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker measures about 8.5 inches long with a 14-inch wingspan and weighs 1.5 ounces.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

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.

Habitat

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.

Feeding

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.

Reproduction

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.

Migration

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is non-migratory, and individuals rarely wander outside its traditional range.

  • 20,000
  • 20,000
  • Endangered
Population Status Trends

Once considered abundant, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker declined with the destruction of its habitat from the 1800's into the 1930's. Before the arrival of Europeans, conservationists estimate that 1 to 1.5 million of these small woodpeckers inhabited North America. In 1968, the total population was estimated at fewer than 10,000 individuals. Currently, it is scattered in about 30 regions, with most birds occurring in just 10 areas. Overall, the species appeared stable to increasing on federal lands between 2000 and 2005, but declining on private lands. Only 4 of the 11 states in which it now occurs have large, potential breeding regions with more than 250 active clusters.

In 2006, a "5-Year Review" by the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized the need to evaluate the overall population in terms of its fragments, because so many are susceptible to extirpation.

Conservation Issues

The extirpation of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from Kentucky in 2001 illustrates the precarious future of the entire species. By 1995, only 3 of these woodpeckers were found in Kentucky, and the program to re-establish them failed between 1995 and 2001, when the remaining 15 of 50 reintroduced birds were removed from the state. An invasion of the Southern Pine Beetle was the last, major cause of the extirpation; but recent drought, intense fires, icy winters, and an aging tree population weakened the forests.

Loss of habitat is by far the greatest threat to the Red-cockaded Woodpecker's survival. Its original habitat covered as much as 92 million acres, but it now occupies less than 3 million acres, only 10,000 of which are virgin long-leaf pine forest. Tree farming eliminates the mature pine trees that this species requires. Urban development and forest fragmentation isolate populations and potentially cause localized inbreeding, when dispersal is no longer possible. When humans limit fire, deciduous trees replace pines. In degraded forests, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is more susceptible to predation and to competition with other woodpecker species like the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Rat snakes, corn snakes, southern flying squirrels, screech owls, and Sharp-shinned Hawks also have easier access to young and adults.

But there is hope and some significant progress. In North Carolina, the Sandhills East Important Bird Area (IBA), which includes Fort Bragg and Weymouth Woods State Park, hosts one of the largest populations of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Between 1992 and 2005, active clusters on these public lands grew from 238 to 368, and previously isolated populations are being reconnected. This success was built on a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the military leadership at Fort Bragg, the North Carolina Resources Commission, the Sandhills Area Land Trust, and the U.S. Army Environmental Center, among others. This team created buffer zones around active clusters, maintained contiguous forest, conducted regular controlled burns, installed artificial nest cavities and cavity restrictors to exclude other species, and started new colonies.

What You Can Do

Look for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in an Important Bird Area like the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge , just north of McBee, South Carolina. The Refuge provides guidelines for watching this Endangered Species with respect for its needs and tips for finding it.

Audubon and its partners in conservation coordinated the submission of over two million comments to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would protect habitat for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and many other species. Unfortunately, implementation of the Rule has been stalled and attempts are being made to weaken it. Help protect these vital habitats .

The Endangered Species Act has helped protect the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and made it possible to learn critical information about its biology. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly owned wildlife resources. Check out  to Learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help on Audubon's Issues & Action Web site.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Read about other species protected under the Endangered Species Act

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Jackson, Jerome A. 1994. Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). The Birds of North America, No. 184 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Conservation Status References

Costa, Ralph. "Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation." 2006. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Clemson Ecological Field Services Office, Clemson, South Carolina. Accessed 4 August 2007.

"Forest Health: Red Cockaded Woodpecker." USDA Forest Service, Daniel Boone National Forest, 1700 Bypass Road, Winchester, KY 4039. Updated: February 19, 2005. Accessed 4 August 2007. 

Jackson, Jerome A. 1994. Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). The Birds of North America, No. 184 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.