Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, USFWS

At a Glance

  • Scientific Name: Picoides borealis
  • Population: 15,000 individuals
  • Trend:  Decreasing
  • Habitat: Mature pine forest, usually longleaf pine, with sparse understory

Red-cockaded Woodpecker map, NatureServeThe dapper Red-cockaded Woodpecker was once a common sight throughout the mighty longleaf pine forests of the southern United States. Only the male sports the small red mark, or "cockade," on its nape; this term harkens back to the early 1800s and refers to a ribbon or other ornament worn on a hat.

A specialist of open pine forests with large, old trees, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers require habitat normally maintained by periodic natural burns. Due to years of fire suppression and large-scale clearing, great swathes of southern pine forest have been lost, leaving the Red-cockaded Woodpecker dangerously close to extinction.

Similar habitat changes have impacted birds of the Central Hardwoods Bird Conservation Region further west, such as Northern Bobwhite.

Keystone Species of Southern Pine Forests

This species is found only in the continental United States, with a range that originally extended as far north as New Jersey and included the entire southeast. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are now found in a reduced area from Oklahoma east to Virginia, and south to Florida and Texas. The species is non-migratory, although individuals may wander in response to habitat loss.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are a “keystone” species — a species that other wildlife depends upon. The birds excavate their own nest cavities, which later provide nesting habitat for other cavity-users including Red-headed Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird, along with mammals such as southern flying squirrel.

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Division of Diet

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers dine on the wide variety of insects, and their eggs and larvae, found in or on pine trees. They prefer larger, older pines for foraging and find their prey by flaking away and probing under pine bark.

Male and female Red-cockaded Woodpeckers exhibit different foraging behaviors, with males favoring the tree limbs and upper trunk and females foraging on the trunk below the crown. This divided foraging behavior is most noticeable in winter when insects are scarce and may help reduce competition between individual birds.

Sappy Nest Defenses

This is the only woodpecker species that excavates cavities in living pines; most excavate only in dead wood such as a snag. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers prefer older trees with red heart disease, a fungus that softens the wood and allows for easier excavation. In spite of this, the birds typically need several years to complete a nesting or roosting cavity.

As the birds excavate, the live pine tree "bleeds" sticky sap around the hole opening, discouraging tree-climbing snakes that could take eggs and young birds. Apparently well aware of the sap's benefits, the woodpeckers actively unclog the sap wells to maintain their nest defenses.

Male Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Robert Royse

Male Red-cockaded Woodpecker by Robert Royse

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cooperative breeders, living in small family groups composed of a breeding pair and several helpers (usually male offspring from previous years). These helpers assist in raising young by incubating eggs and brooding and feeding nestlings. The entire family often forages as a group over a territory from about 125 to 200 acres.

Cockaded Conservation

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was listed as Endangered when the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. Since that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with a wide variety of partners on federal and private lands to stabilize and increase populations of the species.

On public lands, managers now set controlled fires to mimic the natural burns that historically maintained suitable Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat. By maintaining older trees in the landscape, along with building artificial nest cavities and undertaking translocation programs, conservationists have also helped to boost some populations and establish new colonies.

ABC's work with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative is helping  to inform forest management practices that benefit both birds and landowners. These efforts maintain habitat for birds such as Prairie Warbler, Wood Thrush, and Swallow-tailed Kite while keeping forests on the landscape to support Red-cockaded Woodpecker and other birds. Learn more about ABC's work with SFI.

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