Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Description and biology

The red–cockaded woodpecker is so–named because the male of the species has tiny red patches or “cockades” on the sides of his head (a cockade is an ornament worn on a hat as a badge). Female red–cockaded woodpeckers lack these patches.

An average red–cockaded woodpecker measures 7 inches (18 centimeters) long and has a wingspan of 15 inches (38 centimeters). The plumage (covering of feathers) on the bird’s upperparts is black with white stripes.

Its chest and belly are white with black–flecked sides. The bird has a black crown and prominent black bands that start at its bill and run down both sides of its neck. On each cheek, between the band and the bird’s crown, is a large white patch.

The red–cockaded woodpecker feeds on insects (ants, beetles, caterpillars, roaches, and spiders) both on and below tree bark. It also eats fruits, berries, and seeds. The bird nests in groups called clans.

These clans consist of a male–female pair, their fledglings (young that have just developed flying feathers), and their young male offspring from previous years called “helpers.” Clans forage or feed over territories of approximately 200 acres (40 to 80 hectares).

This bird is the only woodpecker that bores out a nesting hole with its sharp, chisellike bill in live, mature pine trees (other woodpeckers create holes in dead or dying trees).

A female red–cockaded woodpecker lays a clutch of two to five white eggs in the nesting hole in April or May. The helpers assist their parents in incubating (sitting on or brooding) the eggs for about ten days. They then assist in raising the nestlings.

Habitat and current distribution

The red–cockaded woodpecker is found in the southeastern United States from Texas and from Oklahoma east to the southern Atlantic Coast. The largest concentrations of birds are located in Florida and South Carolina. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate the total red–cockaded woodpecker population to be between 10,000 and 14,000 birds.

These woodpeckers prefer to inhabit old–growth pine forests, mainly those with long–needled pines averaging 80 to 120 years old. These types of forests usually have very little underbrush.

History and conservation measures

The red–cockaded woodpecker was once abundant throughout a range that stretched as far north as Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the bird’s population began to decline and its range began to shrink.

The main reason was habitat loss. Mature pine forests were rapidly cleared to create farmland or cut down to supply the increased demand for timber. If new trees were planted in these areas, they were not the long–needled pines favored by the red–cockaded woodpecker, but faster–growing hardwood trees. Over the last 100 years, 90 percent of the bird’s habitat in the southeast has been cleared.

Most of the remaining forested pine areas suitable for the woodpeckers are on federal lands and are, therefore, protected. In other areas, foresters and wildlife specialists are trying to increase the amount of red–cockaded woodpecker habitat by burning underbrush and small trees, leaving only old pines standing.

In 1993, the Georgia–Pacific Company (a timber company) signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help protect the woodpecker on thousands of acres of company land.

Two more timber companies, Hancock Timber Resource Group and Champion International Corporation, have since signed similar agreements to protect the red–cockaded woodpecker on their lands.