Red-cockaded Woodpecker
FWS Focus

Overview

22 cm. Rather small black-and-white woodpecker with longish bill. Above black barred white. Below white with black spots on flanks. Black crown, nape and moustachial stripe border white cheeks and side of neck. Male has small red mark on the side of nape. Juvenile browner with variable extent of red on crown.

Scientific Name

Picoides borealis
Common Name
Red-cockaded Woodpecker
FWS Category
Birds

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Overview

Characteristics

Overview

Red-cockaded woodpeckers makes their homes in mature pine forests. Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are most commonly preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. While other woodpeckers bore out cavities in dead trees where the wood is rotten and soft, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one which excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees. Cavities are excavated in mature pines, generally more than 80 years old. The older pines favored by red-cockaded woodpeckers often suffer from a fungus called red heart disease which attacks the center of the trunk, causing the inner wood -- the heartwood -- to become soft. Cavity excavation takes one to six years.

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. Cavity trees that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators. The typical territory for a group ranges from about 125 to 200 acres, but observers have reported territories running from a low of around 60 acres, to an upper extreme of more than 600 acres. The size of a particular territory is related to both habitat suitability and population density.

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics

Habitat

Red-cockaded woodpeckers makes their homes in mature pine forests. Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are most commonly preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. While other woodpeckers bore out cavities in dead trees where the wood is rotten and soft, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one which excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees. Cavities are excavated in mature pines, generally more than 80 years old. The older pines favored by red-cockaded woodpeckers often suffer from a fungus called red heart disease which attacks the center of the trunk, causing the inner wood -- the heartwood -- to become soft. Cavity excavation takes one to six years.

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. Cavity trees that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators. The typical territory for a group ranges from about 125 to 200 acres, but observers have reported territories running from a low of around 60 acres, to an upper extreme of more than 600 acres. The size of a particular territory is related to both habitat suitability and population density.

 

Forest

A dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics

Food

Over 75% of the diet of RCWs consists of arthropods, especially ants and cockroaches, but also beetles, spiders, centipedes, true bugs, crickets, and moths (Beal et al. 1941, Baker 1971, Harlow and Lennartz 1977, Hanula and Franzreb 1995, Hess and James 1998, Hanula and Engstrom 2000, Hanula et al. 2000a).  Fruits and seeds make up a small portion of the adult diet. RCWs have been known to eat the fruits or seeds of pines (Pinus spp.), poison ivy (Rhus radicans), magnolia (Magnolia spp.), wax myrtle (Myrica spp.), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), wild grape (Vitus spp.), blueberry (Vaccinum spp.), and blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica).  The diet of nestlings also consists principally of arthropods, with fruits being a minor component (Baker 1971, Harlow and Lennartz 1977, Hanula and Engstrom 2000, Hanula et al. 2000a).

Baker, W. W. 1971. Observation of the food habits of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Pp. 100- 107 in R. L. Thompson, ed. Ecology

and management of the red-cockaded woodpecker. U.S. Bureau of Sport Fishing and Wildlife and Tall Timbers Research

Station, Tallahassee, FL.

Beal, F. E. L., W. L. McAtee, and E. R. Kalmbach. 1941. Red-cockaded woodpecker. Pages 33-35 in Common birds of southeastern

United States in relation to agriculture. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation Bulletin 15.

Hanula, J. L., and R. T. Engstrom. 2000. Comparison of red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) nestling diet in old-growth and

old-field longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) habitats. American Midland Naturalist 144:370-376.

Hanula, J. L., and K. E. Franzreb. 1995. Arthropod prey of nestling red-cockaded woodpeckers in the upper coastal plain of South

Carolina. Wilson Bulletin 107:485-495.

Harlow, R. F., and M. R. Lennartz. 1977. Foods of nestling red-cockaded woodpeckers in coastal South Carolina. Auk 94:376-377.

Hess, C. A., and F. C. James. 1998. Diet of the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Apalachicola National Forest. Journal of Wildlife

Management 62:509-517.

 

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics

Behavior

The RCW is highly sedentary compared to most other birds. Adult helper males disperse the shortest distance to nearby territories, as seen in the North Carolina Sandhills (median 1.27 kilometers, 0.79 mile) (Kesler et al. 2010). Juveniles exhibit 2 dispersal behaviors following prospecting forays from their natal territory (Pasinelli and Walters 2002, Kesler et al. 2010). In the prevailing short distance mode, juvenile males and females moved a median, respectively, of 2.94 kilometer (1.83 miles) and 3.31 kilometer (2.06 miles) in the Sandhills (Kesler et al. 2010). Following extraterritorial forays at much greater distances than their normal forays, some juveniles engaged a less frequent jumper behavior to acquire positions at other territories at a mean distance of 9.9 kilometers (6.15 miles) from their natal territory (Kesler et al. 2010).

 

Excavation of cavities in live pines has given rise to additional unusual and complex behaviors, ranging from cooperative breeding (Walters et al. 1992) to daily excavation of resin wells to create resin barriers against predatory North American rat snakes (Pantherophis sp., Ligon 1970, Dennis 1971, Jackson 1974, 1978, Rudolph et al. 1990). Use of live pines is also the primary reason why the species requires mature pines, the loss of which has resulted in endangerment.  Excavation of cavities in live pines is an amazingly difficult task. Birds must first select a suitable old pine (Jackson and Jackson 1986, Conner and O’Halloran 1987, DeLotelle and Epting 1988, Rudolph and Conner 1991), then excavate an entrance tunnel through 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) of live sapwood, avoiding dangerous pine resin that seeps from the wood, and finally construct a cavity chamber within the heartwood (Jackson 1977, Hooper et al. 1980, Conner and Locke 1982, Conner and O’Halloran 1987, Hooper 1988, Hooper et al. 1991). The time required to excavate a cavity varies greatly, but excavation typically takes many years

(Jackson et al. 1979, Rudolph and Conner 1991, Conner and Rudolph 1995).  

 

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 RCWs to detect prey. Differences in the foraging behavior of males and females may help to reduce competition between them when food is scarce.

Conner, R. N., and B. A. Locke. 1982. Fungi and red-cockaded woodpecker cavity trees. Wilson Bulletin 94:64-70.

Conner, R. N., and K. A. O'Halloran. 1987. Cavity-tree selection by red-cockaded woodpeckers as related to growth dynamics of

southern pines. Wilson Bulletin 99:398-412.

Conner, R. N., D. C. Rudolph, and J. R. Walters. 2001. The red-cockaded woodpecker surviving in a fire-maintained ecosystem.

University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

DeLotelle, R. S., and R. J. Epting. 1988. Selection of old trees for cavity excavation by redcockaded woodpeckers. Wilson Bulletin

16:48-52.

Dennis, J. V. 1971. Utilization of pine resin by the red-cockaded woodpecker and its effectiveness in protecting roosting and nest

sites. Pages 78-86 in R. L. Thompson, editor. The ecology and management of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. Department of the Interior, and Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, Florida, USA.

Hooper, R. G., A. F. Robinson, Jr., and J. A. Jackson. 1980. The red-cockaded woodpecker: notes on life history and management. U.S.

Forest Service, Southern Region General Report SAGR 9.

Hooper, R. G. 1988. Longleaf pines used for cavities by red-cockaded woodpeckers. Journal of Wildlife Management 52:392-398.

Hooper, R. G., M. R. Lennartz, and H. D. Muse. 1991. Heart rot and cavity tree selection by redcockaded woodpeckers. Journal of

Wildlife Management 55:323-327.

Jackson, J. A. 1974. Gray rat snakes versus red-cockaded woodpeckers: predator-prey adaptations. Auk 91:342-347.

Jackson, J. A. 1978. Predation by a gray rat snake on red-cockaded woodpecker nestlings. BirdBanding 49:187-188.

Jackson, J. A., and B. J. S. Jackson. 1986. Why do red-cockaded woodpeckers need old trees? Wildlife Society Bulletin 14:318-322.

 

Kesler, D. C., J. R. Walters, and J. J. Kappes. 2010. Social influences on dispersal and the fattailed dispersal distribution in red-

cockaded woodpeckers. Behavioral Ecology 21:1337-1343.

Ligon, J. D. 1970. Behavior and breeding biology of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Auk 87:255-278.

Pasinelli, G., and J. R. Walters. 2002. Social and environmental factors affect natal dispersal and philopatry of male red-cockaded

woodpeckers. Ecology 83:2229-2239.

Rudolph, D. C., H. Kyle, and R. N. Conner. 1990. Red-cockaded woodpeckers vs. rat snakes: the effectiveness of the resin barrier.

Wilson Bulletin 102:14-22.

Walters, J. R., C. K. Copeyon, and J. H. Carter III. 1992. Test of the ecological basis of cooperative breeding in red-cockaded

woodpeckers. Auk 109:90-97

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics

Size & Shape

  • RCWs are relatively small. They are larger than downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), similar in size to yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), and smaller than other southeastern woodpeckers. Sizes vary based geographically and clinally, with larger birds generally to the north (Mengel and Jackson 1977).
  • Adults
    • 20 to 23 centimeters long (8 to 9 inches; Jackson 1994, Conner et al. 2001).
    • Wingspan is about 35 to 38 centimeters (14 to 15 inches).
  • Nestlings
    • Aged according to descriptive characteristics of Day 0 to Day 19 set out by Ligon (1970) and depicted in Table 20 of the Service’s 2003 recovery.
      • Day 0; Skin - Loose and pink, Bill - Mandible roughly 2milimeter longer that maxilla; diamond-shaped egg-tooth on maxilla, Wings - Permanently extended and used to remain upright, Retrices – Bumps, Feet - Heel pad greatly enlarged, Size - Appears small enough to fit back into egg.
      • Day 19; Retrices - Longest feather 29 mm and quills beginning to break away, Remiges - Longest primary 45 mm and quills beginning to break away, Tracts - Body covered with feathers except for abdomen and flanks.

Conner, R. N., D. C. Rudolph, and J. R. Walters. 2001. The red-cockaded woodpecker surviving in a fire-maintained ecosystem.

University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

Jackson, J. A. 1994. Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). In A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The birds of North America, No. 85.

Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia PA, and the American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington D.C.

Ligon, J. D. 1970. Behavior and breeding biology of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Auk 87:255-278.

Mengel, R. M., and J. A. Jackson. 1977. Geographic variation of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Condor 79:349-355.

 

Color & Pattern

Alexander Wilson gave the species the English common name we use today, red-cockaded woodpecker, in reference to the several red feathers of males, located between the black crown and white cheek patch, which are briefly displayed when the male is excited. In Wilson’s time, “cockade” was a common term for a ribbon or other ornament worn on a hat as a badge. The cockade is a poor field mark because it is rarely seen in the field, but it does identify the sexes of adult birds in the hand.

  • Adults and Juveniles
    • Black and white with a ladder back.
    • Large white cheek patches that distinguish RCWs from all other woodpeckers in their range.
    • Black above with black and white barring on their backs and wings.
    • Breasts and bellies are white to grayish white with distinctive black spots along the sides of the breast changing to bars on the flanks.
    • Central tail feathers are black and outer tail feathers are white with black barring.
  • Adults
    • Black crowns.
    • Narrow white line above the black eye.
    • Heavy black stripe separating the white cheek from a white throat.
    • White to grayish or buffy nasal tufts.
    • Bills are black, and legs are gray to black.
    • Males have several red feathers, located between the black crown and white cheek patch. The small cockade is not normally visible beneath crown feathers.
    • Excepting the red cockade, RCWs are monomorphic and the sexes are generally indistinguishable in the field.
  • Juveniles
    • Juvenile females have all black crowns.
    • Juvenile males have red crown patches.
    • Juveniles may have duller plumage than adults, the presence of white flecks just above the bill on the forehead, and diffuse black shading in the white cheek patch.
  • Nestlings
    • Nestling female capital feather tracks, observed through the transparent skin before feather emergence, appear grayish black (Jackson 1982).
    • Nestling male capital feather tracks appear reddish (Jackson 1982).

Jackson, J. A. 1982. Capturing woodpecker nestlings with a noose - a technique and its limitations. North American Bird Bander 7:90

92.

Sound

RCWs are most known for their raspy “sklit”, however, other calls can be heard including a “Churt” (repeated every 2-4 seconds) when flying into a roosting and nesting area, a rattle that ends with a drop in pitch, and foraging birds give a soft, melodious chortling call when close to each other. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2019)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2019. All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-cockaded_Woodpecker/sounds Accessed on 20211015

Weight

Adults weigh roughly 40 to 55 grams (1.5 to 1.75 ounces; Jackson 1994, Conner et al. 2001).

Conner, R. N., D. C. Rudolph, and J. R. Walters. 2001. The red-cockaded woodpecker surviving in a fire-maintained ecosystem.

University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

Jackson, J. A. 1994. Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). In A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The birds of North America, No. 85.

Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia PA, and the American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington D.C.

Physical Characteristics

The RCW is highly sedentary compared to most other birds. Adult helper males disperse the shortest distance to nearby territories, as seen in the North Carolina Sandhills (median 1.27 kilometers, 0.79 mile) (Kesler et al. 2010). Juveniles exhibit 2 dispersal behaviors following prospecting forays from their natal territory (Pasinelli and Walters 2002, Kesler et al. 2010). In the prevailing short distance mode, juvenile males and females moved a median, respectively, of 2.94 kilometer (1.83 miles) and 3.31 kilometer (2.06 miles) in the Sandhills (Kesler et al. 2010). Following extraterritorial forays at much greater distances than their normal forays, some juveniles engaged a less frequent jumper behavior to acquire positions at other territories at a mean distance of 9.9 kilometers (6.15 miles) from their natal territory (Kesler et al. 2010).

 

Excavation of cavities in live pines has given rise to additional unusual and complex behaviors, ranging from cooperative breeding (Walters et al. 1992) to daily excavation of resin wells to create resin barriers against predatory North American rat snakes (Pantherophis sp., Ligon 1970, Dennis 1971, Jackson 1974, 1978, Rudolph et al. 1990). Use of live pines is also the primary reason why the species requires mature pines, the loss of which has resulted in endangerment.  Excavation of cavities in live pines is an amazingly difficult task. Birds must first select a suitable old pine (Jackson and Jackson 1986, Conner and O’Halloran 1987, DeLotelle and Epting 1988, Rudolph and Conner 1991), then excavate an entrance tunnel through 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) of live sapwood, avoiding dangerous pine resin that seeps from the wood, and finally construct a cavity chamber within the heartwood (Jackson 1977, Hooper et al. 1980, Conner and Locke 1982, Conner and O’Halloran 1987, Hooper 1988, Hooper et al. 1991). The time required to excavate a cavity varies greatly, but excavation typically takes many years

(Jackson et al. 1979, Rudolph and Conner 1991, Conner and Rudolph 1995).  

 

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 RCWs to detect prey. Differences in the foraging behavior of males and females may help to reduce competition between them when food is scarce.

Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics

Lifespan

The mortality pattern is typical of cooperatively breeding avian species.  It is characterized by relatively low survival during the first year, especially of dispersers; relatively high survival of breeders and helpers; and senescence at the end of the life span.  Compared to non-cooperative species, survival of both juveniles and adults is high, and the life span is long.

A bird of its size residing in temperate regions, the RCW exhibits exceptionally high survival rates.  Survival rates of adult male helpers and breeders generally are about 5% higher than that of breeding females.  There is distinct geographic variation in survival similar to that observed for partial brood loss.  Survival rates are about 75% for males and 70% for females in the northern, inland population in the North Carolina Sandhills, about 80% and 75% respectively in coastal populations in North Carolina, and 86% and 80%, respectively, in the Florida panhandle.  Such an association between increased survival and reduced fecundity is common in animal life histories.

A captive female lived to 17 years (J. Jackson, pers. comm.) and the maximum ages recorded for wild birds are 18 for males and 17 for females (Walters, unpublished).

Lifecycle

The RCWs peak reproductive years are from ages four to eight. Breeding season  begins in April and lasts through July. Generally clutches contain 2 to 4 eggs, although the full range is 1 to 5 eggs. Co-breeding females produce clutches as large as 8 eggs, but more typically 5-7. Variation exist among populations in clutch size, with population averages ranging from 2.9 to 3.5 eggs, but there does not appear to be a regular geographic pattern in this variation.

Incubation begins before the clutch is complete and eggs hatch asynchronously (Ligon 1970).  The number of young fledged from successful nests is typically 1-4. Broods of 5 fledglings occur occasionally in the North Carolina Sandhills at the northern edge of the species’ range, whereas the maximum brood size recorded at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in the southern part of the range is 3 fledglings (Conner et al. 2001).

The first several days after fledging, the young birds are somewhat reluctant to fly, and spend considerable time perched high in the pines, clinging to the trunk or large limbs.  By the end of the first week out of the nest, however, the young are much more active and move with the adults as the group travels through the territory. There is an abrupt transition between the targeted feedings that characterize the first 9 days after fledging to approach feedings from day 10 onwards (Ragheb and Walters 2011).  The fledglings gradually begin to obtain food for themselves but continue to beg for food and squabble with each other for some time.  Young are sometimes observed being fed 2 months after fledging and are occasionally seen begging as late as the subsequent winter (Ligon 1970).

Young birds may either disperse in their first year, or they may remain on the natal territory and become a helper.  The proportion of each sex adopting each strategy varies among populations (Lennartz et al. 1987, Walters et al. 1988, DeLotelle and Epting 1992, Walters and Garcia 2016), but first-year dispersal is the dominant strategy for females whereas both strategies are common among males.  A dispersing individual, if it survives, may become a breeder at age one, but many fail to locate a breeding vacancy and exist as a floater at age one, or in a few cases as a helper in a new group (Walters et al. 1988, 1992, Walters and Garcia 2016).  Some dispersing males locate a territory but no mate, and hence are solitary males at age one.  Solitary males and floaters, like helpers, may become breeders at subsequent breeding seasons.

Conner, R. N., D. C. Rudolph, and J. R. Walters. 2001. The red-cockaded woodpecker surviving in a fire-maintained ecosystem.

University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

DeLotelle, R. S., and R. J. Epting. 1992. Reproduction of the red-cockaded woodpecker in central Florida. Wilson Bulletin 104:285-

294.

Ligon, J. D. 1970. Behavior and breeding biology of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Auk 87:255-278.

Lennartz, M. R., R. G. Hooper, and R. F. Harlow. 1987. Sociality and cooperative breeding of red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides

borealis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 20:77-88.

Ragheb, E. L. H. and J. R. Walters. 2011. Favouritism or intrabrood competition? Access to food and the benefits of philopatry for

red-cockaded woodpeckers. Animal Behaviour 82:329-338.

Walters, J. R., P. D. Doerr, and J. H. Carter III. 1988. The cooperative breeding system of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Ethology

78:275-305.

Walters, J. R., C. K. Copeyon, and J. H. Carter III. 1992. Test of the ecological basis of cooperative breeding in red-cockaded

woodpeckers. Auk 109:90-97

Walters, J. R. and V. Garcia. 2016. Red-cockaded woodpeckers: alternative pathways to breeding success. Pages 58-76 in W. D.

Koenig and J. L. Dickinson, editors. Cooperative breeding in vertebrates. Cambridge University Press.

Reproduction

RCWs are cooperative breeders.  A breeding group consists of the breeding male and female with 0 – 6 non-breeding adult helpers.  Each RCW occupies its own cavity excavated into the heartwood of living pines that are at least 65-80 years old, and typically much older.  Each group defends its territory of cavity trees and foraging habitat from other groups.  A single group territory and home range where birds forage for invertebrates on and under the bark of larger and older living pines may be upwards to 162 hectares (400 acres), though much less depending on habitat quality and neighboring group density.

In mid-April, the female RCW usually lays a clutch of three to five white eggs in the breeding male’s roost cavity.  Eggs hatch after 10-12 days of incubation (among the shortest incubation in birds) and nestlings fledge from the nest cavity 24-27 days after hatching.  RCW nestlings are altricial, that is, they do not have feathers when hatched and their eyes are not open.  They require a lot of care from parents and helpers who will feed the nestlings and clean the cavity of waste during the nestling period.  In contrast, quail are precocial; they hatch fully feathered and are able to feed themselves when led to food by the parent.

After fledging, the young birds continue to be fed by adults for up to six months at which time the majority of fledglings disperse from the territory where they hatched.  Mortality is high (68%) for female fledglings as they disperse to search for breeding vacancies.  Male fledglings either disperse or remain on their natal territory to become helpers.  Annual mortality is also high (57%) for male fledglings.

Although re-nesting may occur if a clutch or brood is lost, RCWs typically have only one successful nesting attempt annually.  Double brooding (two successful nests in one breeding season) has been documented but is extremely rare.

Characteristic category

Geography

Characteristics

Range

RCWs occupy a patchy distribution in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia.

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