Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Picoides borealis
Red-cockaded Woodpecker

In the vast stands of centuries-old pines that once stretched from the Atlantic Coast to the forests of eastern Oklahoma, the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) once thrived. However, the farming practices of the European settlers and the progressive changes in timber management combined to drive this territorial, non-migratory bird nearly to extinction. The red-cockaded woodpecker, often referred to simply as the "RCW," was placed on the endangered species list in 1970. While recovery efforts continue, the population is currently estimated by USFWS to be roughly 17,500 birds living in about 8,000 family groups, up from an estimated 12,500 birds and 5,000 groups a decade ago.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is about the size of the common cardinal or robin, approximately seven inches long, with a wingspan of about 15 inches. Its back is barred with black and white horizontal stripes. The RCW'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 when defending its territory, the male has a namesake small red streak -- called a cockade -- on each side of its black cap.

These small woodpeckers are unique in two ways. First, it is the only woodpecker that excavates its nesting and roosting cavities in living trees: preferably old-growth longleaf or loblolly pines. Second, the red-cockaded woodpecker lives within a tight-knit extended family community of breeding birds and helper birds.



In order to survive and prosper, the RCW requires open, park-like forested landscapes of longleaf pine Home ranges can be from 70-500 acres depending on habitat quality, namely the presence of open pine stands that have been frequently burned. Mature longleaf pine trees are a necessity because the older trees often fall prey to a fungus called red-heart disease. This fungus softens the core of the tree, making it easier for the woodpecker to create its nesting and roosting cavities.

The RCW feeds primarily on wood-boring insects like beetles, wood roaches, ants, centipedes, caterpillars, and spiders. Occasionally the adults will be observed feeding on blueberry, sweet bay berries, and even poison ivy.



Facts About Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Omnivore, mostly insects, fruits, and nuts.
Average Lifespan
16 years
20 to 23 cm in length