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.
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This small bird'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.