DESCRIPTION: The red-cockaded woodpecker is a small bird (20 centimeters) recognized by its barred back, black cap, and a large conspicuous white cheek patch. Males have a small red patch near the ear (the cockade), but this is seldom seen in the field. Fledgling males have a red crown patch which is lost after their first molt. The superficially similar hairy and downy woodpeckers lack the cheek patches and striped back. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, as do most woodpeckers, possess strong, clawed toes, of which two point forward and two backward. This toe arrangement, coupled with a stiff tail that is used as a prop, enables woodpeckers to cling vertically to tree trunks. Their bill is strong and sharp, and thus is well adapted to excavating tree cavities or chipping away bark to expose wood-boring insects. It is much less noisy and conspicuous than other woodpeckers and therefore seldom noticed.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: Red-cockaded woodpeckers are associated with stands of mature to overmature southern pines. In southwest Florida slash pine are the dominant pine; whereas, in northern Florida longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) are present. Typically, these forests are open park-like stands and lack a thick understory because of frequent burning. The geographic distribution of the red-cockaded woodpecker, both historically and at present, is primarily coastal plain pinewoods of the southeastern United States and west to eastern Texas. Presently it is found throughout much of the state, being most abundant in some areas of the north, and rare in the south. An estimated 2,000 to 3,500 red-cockaded woodpeckers currently exist in Florida.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only North American woodpecker which excavates its nest and roosts cavities in living pine trees. With a few exceptions, the trees utilized are mature in age and are infected by a fungus disease (Fomes pini) that softens the heartwood. Approximately 1.5 to 15 meters above ground, the birds drill through the living outer wood, and make a small chamber (cavity) in the softer interior. Their peculiar habit of pecking off patches of bark causes resin to flow and glaze that side of the tree above and below the cavity entrance is done to repel rat snakes and other predators. Three to four eggs are laid during the April through May nesting season, but usually only 1 or 2 young survive to fledging. Eggs are incubated for about 11 days before hatching, and the young remain in the nest for approximately 27 days before fledging. Social structure is another unique aspect of the species. Unlike other woodpeckers, it occurs in "clans" consisting of a breeding pair and from one to four "helpers", nearly always male offspring of previous years. Female offspring from one year are driven from home ranges before onset of the following breeding season. Members of the clan help feed and care for the young as well as participate in territorial defense. Red-cockadeds feed on a wide variety of arthropods, seeds, and fruits. Roosting and nesting occurs in the same trees year after year (often in the same holes) as long as the old pines are available. Once abandoned, these old nesting holes are used by an amazing number of other birds (including other woodpeckers), and to a lesser degree by some mammals, insects, and other animals.
BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: Since the mid-1900's red-cockaded woodpecker populations have declined dramatically as pine forests have disappeared. In response to this drastic decline in local populations and nesting habitat, the federal government in 1970 officially classified the red-cockaded woodpecker as an "endangered" species. The red-cockaded woodpecker is also protected under state law and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1981.
RECOMMENDATIONS: As pine forests continue to be eliminated red-cockaded woodpecker populations will decline. Without habitat protection the species prospects for long term survival will remain uncertain. In southwest Florida, where this species is rare, immediate efforts should be to manage the areas where the bird still exists.
Houis, J.A. 1996. Red cockaded woodpecker. Pp. 81-102. In Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Volume V. Birds. (J.A. Rodgers, Jr., H.W. Kale II, and H.T. Smith eds.) University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
Lennartz, M.R., and V.G. Henry. 1995. Endangered species recovery plan: Red Cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA.
Content updated Date July 20, 2004