North Carolina Sandhills Suboffice
Conserving the Nature of America
Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Photo by Jim Hanula/USFS

Picoides borealis

STATUS: Endangered

DESCRIPTION: About the size of the common cardinal, the red-cockaded woodpecker is approximately 7 inches long (18 to 20 centimeters), with a wingspan of about 15 inches (35 to 38 centimeters). Its back is barred with black and white horizontal stripes. The red-cockaded woodpecker's most distinguishing feature is a black cap and nape that encircle large white cheek patches. Rarely visible, except perhaps during the breeding season and periods of territorial defense, the male has a small red streak on each side of its black cap called a cockade, hence its name.

The red-cockaded woodpecker feeds primarily on beetles, ants, roaches, caterpillars, wood-boring insects, and spiders, and occasionally fruits and berries.

REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a territorial, nonmigratory, cooperative breeding species, frequently having the same mate for several years. The nesting season lasts from April through June. The breeding female lays three to four eggs in the breeding male's roost cavity. Group members incubate the small white eggs for 10 to 12 days. Once hatched, the nestlings remain in the nest cavity for about 26 days.

Upon fledging, the young often remain with the parents, forming groups of up to nine members, but more typically three to four members. There is only one pair of breeding birds within each group, and they normally raise only a single brood each year. The other group members called helpers, usually males from the previous breeding season, help incubate the eggs and raise the young. Juvenile females generally leave the group before the next breeding season, in search of solitary male groups.

RANGE AND POPULATION LEVEL: Historically, this woodpecker's range extended from Florida to New Jersey and Maryland, as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, and inland to Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Today it is estimated that there are about 6,000 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or 15000 birds from Florida to Virginia and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas, representing about 1 percent of the woodpecker's original range. They have been extirpated in New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky.

HABITAT: The red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home in mature pine forests. Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are most commonly preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. While other woodpeckers bore out cavities in dead trees where the wood is rotten and soft, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one which excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees. The older pines favored by the red-cockaded woodpecker often suffer from a fungus called red heart disease which attacks the center of the trunk, causing the inner wood, the heartwood, to become soft. Cavities generally take from 1 to 3 years to excavate.

The aggregate of cavity trees is called a cluster and may include 1 to 20 or more cavity trees on 3 to 60 acres. The average cluster is about 10 acres. Cavity trees that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators. The typical territory for a group ranges from about 125 to 200 acres, but observers have reported territories running from a low of around 60 acres, to an upper extreme of more than 600 acres. The size of a particular territory is related to both habitat suitability and population density.

The red-cockaded woodpecker plays a vital role in the intricate web of life of the southern pine forests. A number of other birds and small mammals use the cavities excavated by red-cockaded woodpeckers, such as chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, and several other woodpecker species, including the downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpecker. Larger woodpeckers may take over a red-cockaded woodpecker cavity, sometimes enlarging the hole enough to allow screech owls, wood ducks, and even raccoons to later move in. Flying squirrels, several species of reptiles and amphibians, and insects, primarily bees and wasps, also will use red-cockaded woodpecker cavities.


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Last Updated: December 4, 2020