Red-cockaded Woodpecker

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Picoides borealis

ListedOctober 13, 1970
DescriptionA medium-sized woodpecker.
HabitatPine forests.
ReproductionLays eggs in an excavated tree-cavity.
ThreatsHabitat destruction by conversion to agricultural and residential land-uses, and degradation through forestry practices.
RangeAlabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia


The red-cockaded woodpecker is approximately 7.25 in (19 cm) long with a black and white barred back, black-flecked flanks, and black bars on its white outer tail feathers. It has conspicuous white cheeks and a black band running from the eye to the crown. The adult male has small red patches on each side of his head; females lack the red head plumage. Because the male's red cockades are small and usually concealed beneath black plumage, adults are virtually indistinguishable in the field. Nestling and fledgling males, however, are easily distinguished, even in the nest cavity. About 15 days after birth, males develop a red oval crown patch in the center of an otherwise black crown. This coloring is retained until the first molt in the fall.


The red-cockaded woodpecker is unique among the North American woodpeckers in that it is the only woodpecker that excavates its roost and nest cavities in living pine trees. Each group member has its own cavity, although there may be multiple cavities in a single pine tree. The aggregate of cavity trees is called a cluster. Clans of this nonmigratory woodpecker maintain year-round territories around nesting and roost trees. A clan consists of a mated pair, the current year's offspring, and "helpers" immature males from a previous year that aid the parents with incubation, feeding, and brooding. Nesting occurs in April and May. Clutch size is from two to five eggs; incubation lasts about ten days. Following fledging, juveniles remain in their parents' home range through the summer and into the fall. From late fall to early spring juvenile females disperse, but some juvenile males remain to become helpers. Red-cockaded woodpeckers feed on tree surface and subsurface arthropods.


Red-cockaded woodpeckers forage almost exclusively on pine trees and they generally prefer pines greater than 10 in (25 cm) in diameter at breast height. Foraging habitat is contiguous with the cluster. The number of acres required to supply adequate foraging habitat depends on the quantity and quality of the pine stems available. For nesting, red-cockaded woodpeckers use old-growth trees of most southern pine species, except for sand pine, spruce pine, white pine, and table-mountain pine. The woodpecker shows some preference for mature longleaf pine (Pinus palustris ). Many trees selected for nesting have been found to be infected by the heartwood decaying fungus (Phellinus pini ). This decay may make it easier for the woodpecker to excavate a nest cavity. Cavity trees tend to be clustered in small groups, forming colonies of up to 57 trees. Most active colonies are found in open, park-like stands of pine with sparse hardwood midstories; red-cockaded woodpeckers will abandon nest cavities when the understory reaches the height of the cavity entrance. Pine stands with well-developed hardwood midstories seem to provide better habitat for pileated woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers, species that usurp red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavities.


In the early nineteenth century John James Audubon stated that the red-cockaded woodpecker was "found abundantly from Texas to New Jersey and as far inland as Tennessee," and that it was most numerous in the pine barrens of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. In the early twentieth century ornithologists still considered the bird locally common in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. However, at about that time, researchers began to notice a rangewide population decline and fragmentation of the red-cockaded woodpecker into isolated, local populations. The red-cockaded woodpecker is still widely distributed, presently occurring in 13 southeastern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. However, its remaining populations are highly fragmented and isolated, and are much smaller than the historical abundance.


Most of the original habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker has been lost through conversion to agricultural, residential, and forestry land-uses. Much of the surviving habitat has been degraded through forestry practices that remove cavity trees, changes in the wildfire regime, and other influences. In the 1990s, fewer than 4,500 family units of the red-cockaded woodpecker remained, scattered across an area that totaled only about 1% of its original range. The largest populations occur on federally owned lands, such as military installations and national forests. In South Carolina, there were about 1,000 active clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers in 1992; 53% were on Federal lands, 7% on state lands, and 40% on private lands. The most recent estimate of the status of the population in Florida is from 1995, when there were about 1,285 active clusters, of which 83% were on federal lands, 10% on state-owned lands, and 7% on private lands. A thorough census of red-cockaded woodpeckers on federal lands was conducted in 1979. About 2,100 active colonies were scattered in national forests throughout Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. There were another 200 colonies on wildlife refuges in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and another 340 to 400 colonies on military bases. The total population on federally owned lands was about 2,700 birds. There are additional red-cockaded woodpeckers on state and private land throughout the region.

Conservation and Recovery

Compared with many other endangered birds, is relatively abundant and widespread. However, the prospects for long-term survival are uncertain. A major portion of southern pine habitat has been cleared and converted to other uses. Stands of old-growth pine, required by the species for nesting, are scarce and declining. There are no legal requirements or incentive programs to encourage private landowners to perpetuate old-growth pine forest. There is little doubt that the total red-cockaded woodpecker population continues to decline as more nesting habitat is lost. Since the bird's habitat requirements are well known, public lands can be managed to maintain viable woodpecker populations. Some form of incentive will be needed to assure that private forest lands are managed to provide connecting habitat corridors between the fragmented populations on public land. In 1987, federal biologists, in cooperation with state and local officials in North Carolina, began a program to protect cavity trees of a red-cockaded woodpecker population, estimated at 130 birds. Over 600 cavity trees on private land have been marked with small aluminum signs showing the bird and stating that the tree should not be cut. Because the program has been so well received, efforts are underway to expand it throughout the woodpecker's range. The red-cockaded woodpecker has become a model species for innovative management plans which engage private and public landowners and corporate interests in habitat maintenance and management. In 1995, the Secretary of the Interior announced a plan helping save red-cockaded woodpecker habitat (and that of other rare species), dubbed the "Safe Harbor" proposal, which demonstrates the flexibility of the Endangered Species Act in balancing species protection with the needs of landowners. While the plan encourages landowners to practice good steward-ship that will attract endangered species to their land, it also allows them freedom to convert the land to other uses, without penalty, if they change their minds at a later date. The only provisions are that the landowners 1) cannot destroy nesting sites of endangered birds that were present on a site prior to the Safe Harbor improvements, 2) cannot develop the land during the nesting season, and 3) must allow the government the option to relocate the protected species if the habitat is to be adversely affected by subsequent alteration. The plan grew out of a conference held in September 1992 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Co-hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Army, the meeting was convened to develop a long-term program for recovering the red-cockaded woodpecker in the North Carolina Sandhills. Fort Bragg was a fitting site for the conference since this large base is home to a significant population of the woodpeckers. Discussions specifically addressed woodpecker protection needs on private lands and the necessity for a multi-agency effort to conserve this species.

Fort Bragg is home to five endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpeckerin late 1996, the area had 269 active woodpecker clusters, making it the core of the species's second largest population. The installation also hosts a number of rare plant and animal species that have evolved in a fire-maintained, longleaf pine ecosystem. Frequent training-caused fires in artillery impact areas, coupled with an aggressive prescribed burning program, serve to restore and maintain habitat for endangered species. On Fort Bragg's behalf, the Army is funding a FWS biologist whose job is to coordinate red-cockaded woodpecker management and conservation efforts on private lands around Fort Bragg. The program invites landowners to participate in habitat conservation measures to aid in regional recovery.

Another southern military installation with a stake in the preservation of the red-cockaded woodpecker is the Army's Fort Benning, Georgia, home to at least 14 and as many as 20 listed species. The installation and its surrounding area has been the subject of an intensive, high-tech survey to identify, document and collection information on rare species. The surveys is using Global Positioning System (GPS) to identify and track locations, and data collected is transferred to Geographic Information System (GIS) format and released to Fort Benning biologists. They can then use the data to review the potential impacts of proposed military training activities on the base's wildlife resources. The GIS location data may also prove helpful for predicting additional locations of listed species on Fort Benning. Companies from Texas to South Carolina have also become involved in protecting the species while moving forward with their own interests, by using official channels to apply for incidental take of the bird and use of the habitat via the Safe Harbor Cooperative Agreements. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, the FWS is giving companies that engage in actions to protect, preserve and enhance red-cockaded woodpecker nesting sites and habitat the incentive of approved limited incidental takes and other land use that might otherwise be considered counter productive to the species recovery. By giving landowners economic reasons to protect the species, the new Safe Harbor program is proving successful in engaging ordinarily ambivalent organizations, such as paper companies and development firms, in the overall scheme of species recovery.

Another major recent development in the red-cockaded woodpecker recovery saga is "Operation Recovery," is a four-state effort to capture and relocate the woodpecker that are most at risk of population decline. This effort is expected to improve population density in sparse populations where group isolation is reducing reproductive success and survival. The four states involved are Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. By mid-1997, capture and translocation had been completed for recipient sites in Arkansas (five pairs) and Oklahoma (five pairs and a single female). Additional woodpeckers have been moved within forests in Texas and Louisiana to improve population status and ensure better chances for breeding success. In 1999, the FWS published a multi-species Recovery Plan for South Florida, in which it was recommended that support populations for the red-cockaded woodpecker be maintained or established in South Florida.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Endangered Species
1875 Century Boulevard, Suite 200
Atlanta, Georgia 30345-3319
Telephone: (404) 679-4159
Fax: (404) 679-1111


Audubon, J. J. 1839. Ornithological Biography. Edinburgh.

Baker, W. W., et al. 1980. "The Distribution and Status of Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Colonies in Florida." Florida Field Naturalist 8:41-45.

Jackson, J. A. 1977. "Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers and Pine Red Heart Disease." Auk 94:160-163.

Jackson, J. A. 1986 "Biopolitics, Management of Federal Lands, and the Conservation of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker." American Birds 40:1162-1168.

Lennartz, M. R., and R. F. Harlow. 1979. "The Role of Parent and Helper Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers at the Nest." Wilson Bulletin 91:331-335.

Ligon, J. D. 1970. "Behavior and Breeding Biology of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker." Auk 87:255-278.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. "Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1999. "South Florida Multi-species Recovery Plan." Vero Beach, Florida.