National Wildlife Refuge System

Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers Thrive on Carolina Sandhills Refuge

The population of red cockaded woodpeckers at Carolina Sandhills Refuge, SC, is growing steadily.
Credit: USFWS

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, SC, home to the largest concentration of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Refuge System, has documented steady population growth in the last six of seven years.

At the time of the European settlement of North America, more than 1.5 million red-cockaded woodpeckers could be found in live mature pine tree cavities across the southeastern U.S. Today, wildlife experts estimate that only about one percent of that number still remain in the wild, and only in a shadow of their former range, which extended from New Jersey, south to Florida, and west to Texas.

According to refuge staff, the key to preserving the red-cockaded woodpecker is protecting its rare longleaf pine habitat, reduced to less than three percent of the estimated 90 million acres at the time of European settlement. Because the birds nest exclusively in mature living pine tree cavities, habitat management is essential.

The refuge regularly conducts prescribed burns to restore and maintain the health of surrounding forests. Effective habitat management not only provides homes for red-cockaded woodpeckers, but also an assortment of other plants and animals, including 30 federally listed threatened or endangered species.


The population of red cockaded woodpeckers at Carolina Sandhills Refuge, SC, is growing steadily.
Credit: USFWS

From May 4-June 12, the refuge banded more than 272 young woodpeckers found in 120 nests. After finding two new breeding groups this year, Carolina Sandhills Refuge now hosts 160 groups of the endangered bird, each containing between two and six individuals. The birds live in family groups, usually a breeding pair and a “helper,” typically a male offspring of the breeding pair.

“We’ve been monitoring woodpecker numbers every year since 1970, when the species was first considered endangered,” said Allyne Askins, refuge manager. “Because our population is so large, we don’t have to band the woodpeckers according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2003 red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan. We do it to help the species as a whole.”

Over the past several years, the refuge has provided other conservation agencies with juvenile woodpeckers in hopes of increasing their population across an area larger than Carolina Sandhills Refuge’s 46,000 acres. Beginning in 2001, the refuge began a five-year collaboration with Piney Grove Preserve to reintroduce the species to Virginia. In 2012, biologists at Piney Grove Preserve counted 53 individual woodpeckers, a new record that proves the population is self-sustaining.

“What we do is very rewarding work,” Askins said. “The birds respond to our habitat management efforts by forming new groups, and that shows the population is moving in the right direction. Every new group is a success on the long path to recovery.”

To learn more about the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery efforts for the red-cockaded woodpecker, click here.

Last updated: July 20, 2015