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A small bird in hand with white patches on its wing and a red patch behind its eye
Information icon A male red-cockaded woodpecker showing off the red feathers behind its head called a cockade. Photo © Robert B. Clontz, The Nautre Conservancy.

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Picoides borealis


The red-cockaded woodpecker is a small bird measuring about 8 inches in length, identifiable by its white cheek patch and black and white barred back. The males have a few red feathers, called a 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. Females 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 cockades appear.

Three red cockaded woodpecker chicks so young their feathers are just starting to emerge. Each bird has a series of bands around its legs for identification
Red-cockaded woodpecker chicks are banded when they are 8-10 days old; with each chick receiving a unique combination of leg bands so that individual birds may be identified with spotting scopes. Photo © Robert B. Clontz, The Nautre Conservancy.


Diet consists mostly of insects in the egg, larvae and adult stages. These include beetles, ants, roaches, spiders and other insects found in or on pine trees. Fruits and seeds make up a small portion of the overall diet. Methods of foraging include flaking away bark and probing under the bark using their specialized forked tongue to extract insects. Large, older trees are preferred for foraging. In general, males forage on the limbs and upper trunk, while females forage on the trunk below the crown. This division of foraging area is most noticeable in winter when insect numbers are at their lowest and their activity slows due to cold weather, making it harder for them to detect prey. Differences in the foraging behavior of males and females may help to reduce competition between them when food is scarce.

Female red-cockaded woodpeckers have been documented searching for bone bits on the forest floor and stuffing them in tree crevices. Zoologists say that is the first known instance of a bird’s hoarding something for its mineral, rather than caloric content. Calcium rich bone is not rare, but the birds probably seek it to ensure stronger eggshells. They stash it in a tree so they won’t have to eat on the ground where they are vulnerable to predators.


The red-cockaded woodpecker is a non-migratory, territorial bird that lives in cooperative breeding social units called groups. These groups chatter and call throughout the day, using a great variety of vocalizations. They are the only North American woodpecker that requires old, living pine trees to excavate roosts and nest cavities, usually in trees infected with a fungus known as red-heart disease. Cavities can take three years or more to excavate, and are occasionally abandoned and reoccupied.

Cavity trees tend to be in areas known as “clusters,” and may include one to 20 or more cavity trees on three to 60 acres. Clusters are made up of active (in use) and inactive (previously used) cavity trees within an area defended by a single group. 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 tree climbing predators.

Suitable nesting habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker include pine stands, or pine-dominated pine/hardwood stands, with a low or sparse understory and ample old-growth pines. Trees must be more than 60 years old to be suitable for cavity construction. Longleaf pine is preferred where available, but they frequently use other species such as loblolly, shortleaf, slash and pond pine.

A tree witch two white bands and a cavity; the tree is partially covered in sap
A tree marked with white bands is home to a red-cockaded woodpecker cavity. Photo © Robert B. Clontz, The Nautre Conservancy.

The red-cockaded woodpecker plays a vital role in the intricate web of life of pine forests. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters, meaning they are responsible for the construction of cavities. In the Southern pine ecosystem there are many secondary cavity users that benefit from their work. They are considered a keystone species because their cavities contribute to the diversity of species in the forest.

At least 27 species of vertebrates have been documented using red-cockaded woodpecker cavities, either for roosting or nesting. Species include insects, birds, snakes, lizards, squirrels and frogs. Many of these species only use the cavities that have been abandoned by the birds; abandonment usually occurs because the entrance tunnel was enlarged by pileated woodpeckers. Southern flying squirrels, red-bellied woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers, Eastern bluebirds, brown-headed nuthatches, tufted titmice and great crested flycatchers are the species most commonly seen in cavities, and can use normal, unenlarged cavities that the birds could also use.}

Historic range

The birds originally inhabited the open, fire-maintained 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 European settlement, widespread commercial timber harvesting and the turpentine industry. Commercial tree farming, fire-suppression, urbanization and agriculture contributed to further declines. Much of the current habitat is also different from historical pine forests in which these woodpeckers evolved. Today, many southern pine forests are young and with an absence of fire, that have become dense pine/hardwood forests unsuitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Current range

Today, the red-cockaded woodpecker is found in 11 states (AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, NC, MS, OK, SC, VA, and TX), and occurs on federal, state and private lands.

Conservation challenges

  • The loss of suitable habitat has caused the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers to decline by almost 99% since the time of European settlement. The primary habitat of the species in the longleaf pine ecosystem, has been reduced to 3% of its original expanse.
  • Habitat fragmentation caused by land-use development and incompatible forest management practices.
  • Small population sizes.
  • Stochastic events such as hurricanes, ice storms, and wildfires, which are particularly problematic given the high number of very small woodpecker populations.
  • Lack of natural fire or insufficient prescribed fire, which is important in maintaining this type of ecosystem and to prevent encroachment of fire-intolerant hardwoods leading to cluster abandonment.
  • Restoring forest habitat to a suitable condition and providing artificial cavities until pines become sufficiently old for natural cavity excavation.
  • The red-cockaded woodpecker is a conservation-reliant species; populations will decline without active and continuous management. This includes:
    • Reliance on artificial cavities due to the absence of sufficient old pines for natural cavity excavation.
    • Reliance on continued habitat treatments (such as prescribed fire) to establish and maintain the open, pine-savannah conditions favored by the species.

Partnerships, research and projects

Working with conservation partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) revised the red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan in 2003 featuring the participation of other federal and state agencies and private landowners. Many large landscapes that provide habitat are on federal land, the For example, the U.S. Department of Defense developed special management guidelines for the woodpeckers on national forests and military installations. From 2003, woodpecker populations increased by as much as 66 percent across 15 military installations.. These include Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), Fort Benning (Georgia), Fort Bragg (North Carolina), Fort Polk (Louisiana), Fort Stewart (Georgia), and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (North Carolina). Beneficial conservation management by private landowners are also conserving this species. Over 450 private landowners in nine states are enrolled in the safe harbor program to voluntarily provide management sustaining more than 690 active clusters. The development and implementation of effective management to increase red-cockaded populations is in response to substantial research on the ecology and habitat requirements for this species.

A biologist placing a red-cockaded woodpecker in its new home in an artificial cavity
Dr. Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology acends to an artificial cavity to place a red-cockaded woodpecker in its new home at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Photo by Robert B. Clontz, The Nature Conservancy.

Conservation partners

  • Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
  • Alabama Department of Environmental Management
  • Alabama Forestry Commission
  • Alabama Power Company
  • American Forest Foundation
  • Archbold Biological Station
  • Arkansas Forestry Commission
  • Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
  • Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
  • Coastal Land Trust
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Energy
  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Florida Forest Service
  • Florida Forestry Commission
  • Florida Park Service
  • Forest Landowners Association
  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources
  • Georgia Forestry Commission
  • Georgia-Alabama Land Trust
  • International Paper
  • Jones Ecological Research Center
  • Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry
  • Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
  • Louisiana Office of Forestry
  • Milliken Forestry Company, Inc.
  • Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks
  • Mississippi Forestry Commission
  • Mississippi State University
  • National Audubon Society
  • National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • National Park Service
  • National Wildlife Refuge System
  • Norfolk Southern Corporation
  • North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
  • North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation
  • North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation
  • North Carolina Forest Service
  • North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
  • Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation
  • Open Space Institute
  • Orange County Park and Recreation
  • Private landowners
  • Resource Management Service, LLC
  • South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
  • South Carolina Department of Transportation
  • South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism
  • South Carolina Forestry Commission
  • South Florida Water Management District
  • Southern Company
  • St. John’s River Water Management District
  • Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy
  • Texas A&M Forest Service
  • Texas Forestry Association
  • The Conservation Fund
  • The Jones Center at Ichauway
  • The Longleaf Alliance
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The Wildlife Society
  • Trust for Public Land
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Virginia Department of Forestry
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
  • Weyerhaeuser Company

Recovery plan

The Service held a virtual public informational meeting and virtual public hearing on this proposed rule on December 1, 2020 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET). Below are materials from the meeting and hearing.

Powerpoint presentation for virtual public informational meeting and virtual public hearing

Video recording from virtual public informational meeting and virtual public hearing

A transcript from the public meeting is available here

Download the recovery plan. The goal of the Service’s red-cockaded woodpecker recovery program is to conserve the species and the ecosystem upon which it depends. Red-cockaded woodpeckers have increased in number range-wide in response to recovery and management programs, from an estimated 4,694 active clusters by 1995 to at least 7,800 today.

The Service administers recovery and consultation programs for the red-cockaded woodpecker in accordance with the Endangered Species Act through 13 Ecological Services field offices in 11 states. In addition, the Service works to ensure consistent application of recovery and conservation programs on federal, state, and private lands. The Service promotes conservation, restoration, and ecologically sound management of the longleaf pine and related ecosystems.

Subject matter expert

Designated critical habitat

None designated.

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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