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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Life History


Open WoodlandsThe Red-cockaded Woodpecker evolved in old-growth, open-understory pine forests of the southeastern United States—particularly in longleaf pine—that was naturally maintained by lightning-started fires every one to five years. This habitat was once extensive, but almost disappeared during logging in the twentieth century. The birds are now often found in mature loblolly, slash, shortleaf, Virginia, pond, and pitch pine forests. The woodpeckers are sometimes found in younger stands or stands with dense hardwood encroachment. In southern Florida, they can occur in scattered slash pines mixed with bald cypress and grassy wetlands. If the forest surrounding their territory is cut down, they may persist for a short time but leave within six to ten years.Back to top


InsectsRed-cockaded Woodpeckers eat the adults, larvae, and eggs of insects and other arthropods found on and under the bark of pine trees. These include ants, termites, southern pine beetles, other bark beetles, wood roaches, and centipedes. To a lesser extent they also eat seeds and fruits, including pine seeds, wild cherries, pokeberries, grapes, magnolia berries, poison ivy berries, blueberries, and blackgum berries. Males forage mostly on the branches and upper tree trunks, while females forage mostly on the trunk below the lowest branches. About 90% of foraging is on pines, with 10% on hardwood trees. They favor large pines over small ones, probably because the looser plates of bark (and larger surface area) harbor more prey. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers usually forage in groups and may be joined by mixed flocks of songbirds, such as Eastern Bluebirds and Brown-headed Nuthatches, especially in winter. They use their bills to pull or flick the bark aside, and sometimes use their feet to pull bark (more often seen in females than males). They also probe crevices, branch stubs, needle clusters, cone clusters, and rotting wood. In some regions they may also forage in cornfields on corn earworms.Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityThe nest is placed in the breeding male’s roost cavity, which is usually the most recently excavated cavity among several roost cavities used by the extended family group. Nests are almost always in living pine trees in which the heartwood has been softened by red heart fungus. Recent cavities tend to have more pine resin flowing from holes the woodpeckers drill below the nest entrance. Cavities can be 100 feet or more off the ground and often face to the west or south.

Nest Description

Nest cavities vary in size and shape according to the contour of heartrot in the tree, and grow over time. The entrance measures 2–3 inches across, and the interior measures about 3-4 inches across at its widest. There is no nest but the cavity often has a lining of wood chips left from excavation.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2.1-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.8 in (1.7-1.9 cm)
Incubation Period:10-11 days
Nestling Period:26-29 days
Egg Description:Shiny white.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
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Bark ForagerRed-cockaded Woodpeckers excavate cavities in live pine trees for roosting and nesting. They dig tiny wells below each cavity that leak sap and deter rat snakes and other predators. They live in family groups of two to five adults, usually including only one female. Males have a very strong tendency to stay and breed in their home area, whereas females typically disperse during their first winter. They rarely form new groups, and when they do it usually is near established groups: a young male excavates a cavity at a new site while still roosting with his family group. The breeding pair is monogamous and often stays together for life. Nonbreeding birds help raise the breeding pair’s young and defend them from intruders. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers forage almost entirely in pine trees—using their tail as a springboard to hitch themselves along the trunk. They drink from water collected in leaves, needles, or cavities on branches. The home range of a family group can exceed 200 acres, though it is smaller when nestlings are present. Though they forage together, they typically sleep alone, each in its own cavity in a living pine. When no cavity is available, they may roost in a protected site such as beneath a tree limb. Cavities may be reused for decades.Back to top


Red Watch List

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were once considered common in the southern U.S. and according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their population held fairly steady between 1966 and 2019—although the present population is a fraction of their former numbers. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 19,000 individuals and rates the species 17 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of highest conservation concern. Red-cockaded Woodpecker is included on the Red Watch-List for species that have restricted distributions and small, declining populations. Since 1970, it has been federally listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened. These birds have disappeared from several states, and most remaining large populations are on federal lands. Because the Red-cockaded Woodpecker depends on old-growth southern pine forests for food and habitat, it has been vulnerable to clearcutting, forest fragmentation, conversion of longleaf pine forest to less favorable slash pine forest, and fire suppression. Family groups rarely colonize new areas, because of the time required for cavity excavation. Conservation measures include using metal plates to restrict the size of cavity entrances that have become too large to use, constructing artificial cavities, moving young females to groups lacking a breeding female, and—most importantly—habitat management that preserves large tracts of foraging habitat as well as trees suitable for roosting and nesting cavities.

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Jackson, Jerome A. (1994). Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Rosenberg, K. V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M. Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will (2016). Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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