Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Red-cockaded Woodpekcer (Picoides borealis)

Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Credit Jim Hanula/USFS.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Credit Jim Hanula/USFS.

Federal Status: Endangered, Listed October 13, 1970

Description: The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is a small bird measuring about 7 inches in length. Identifiable by its white cheek patch and black and white barred back, the males have a few red feathers, or "cockade". These red feathers usually remain hidden underneath black feathers between the black crown and white cheek patch unless the male is disturbed or excited. Female RCWs lack the red cockade. Juvenile males have a red 'patch' in the center of their black crown. This patch disappears during the fall of their first year at which time their 'red-cockades' appear.

Habitat: Red-cockaded woodpecker habitat includes forests with trees old enough for roosting, generally at least 60-120 years old, depending on species of pine. The most prominent adaptation of RCWs is their use of living pines for cavity excavation.

For nesting and roosting habitat, red-cockaded woodpeckers need open stands of pine containing trees 60 years old and older. RCWs need live, large older pines in which to excavate their cavities. Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. Dense stands (stands that are primarily hardwoods, or that have a dense hardwood understory) are avoided. Foraging habitat is provided in pine and pine hardwood stands 30 years old or older with foraging preference for pine trees 10 inches or larger in diameter. In good, moderately-stocked, pine habitat, sufficient foraging substrate can be provided on 80 to 125 acres.

Roosting cavities are excavated in living pines, and usually in those which are infected with a fungus known as red-heart disease. 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. Completed cavities that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and other tree climbing predators.

Hardwood midstory encroachment results in cluster abandonment; therefore, it is critical that hardwood midstory be controlled. Prescribed burning is the most efficient and ecologically beneficial method to accomplish hardwood midstory control.

Distribution: RCWs were once considered common throughout the longleaf pine ecosystem, which covered approximately 90 million acres before European settlement. Historical population estimates are 1-1.6 million "groups", the family unit of RCWs. The birds inhabited the open pine forests of the southeast from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia to Florida, west to Texas and north to portions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. The longleaf pine ecosystem initially disappeared from much of its original range because of early (1700’s) European settlement, widespread commercial timber harvesting and the naval stores/turpentine industry (1800’s). Early to mid-1900 commercial tree farming, urbanization and agriculture contributed to further declines. Much of the current habitat is also very different in quality from historical pine forests in which RCWs evolved. Today, many southern pine forests are young and an absence of fire has created a dense pine/hardwood forest.

Threats: The loss of suitable habitat has caused the number of RCWs to decline by approximately 99% since the time of European settlement. The primary habitat of the RCW, the longleaf pine ecosystem, has been reduced to 3% of its original expanse. Many RCW populations were stabilized during the 1990’s due to management based on new understanding of RCW biology and population dynamics. However, there are still populations in decline and small populations throughout the species' current range are still in danger of extirpation.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Recovery Plan for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) Second Revision. Atlanta, GA. 316 pp.

Bibilography: RCW Bibliography

Species Contact:

John Hammond, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, 919-856-4520 ext. 28

Species profile revised on October 20, 2011.

Last Updated: August 24, 2017