Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Shaky Conservation Success Story

Twenty years ago, I had little data about red-cockaded woodpeckers—just a few in a simple file. Since then, I have done a great deal of research on them. They now take up two GB of space on my computer.

I still study them. My focus on these birds, though, has shifted. It is less about their abundance, the years it takes to construct a cavity, or the complexity of their social life. But it’s more about improving their conservation status.

For thousands of years, the southeast US was home to vast pine forests. These forests had frequent wildfires, which helped to reduce the midstory. This created the perfect habitat for the red-cockaded woodpeckers. 

All of that has changed since the 18th century. There was heavy logging of pine trees. That was the first shock for the bird. Then the wildfires that maintained the midstory were suppressed. Now the survival of the bird is in the balance.

My records show they once roamed in high numbers in the southeast US. But since then, about one percent of their original population still exists. Though rare, you can only see them in protected areas and private lands.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a small bird with the black-and-white pattern of a typical woodpecker. You can’t miss it. Always look for a big white patch on both sides of its face. 

While most woodpeckers construct their nests on dead trees, this species prefers a live tree. And with the patience of a saint, this bird takes several years to build a single cavity. 

To appreciate this bird’s challenges, I will tell you about its ecology and where to spot it. You will also know the struggles surrounding the restoration of its population.

Bottom Line Up Front

The Red-cockaded woodpecker is a bird that once lived in the southeast United States pine forests. It now occurs in fragments at less than one percent of its original population from the 18th century. Currently listed as a Near Threatened Species by the IUCN, it wears a red cockade on its head, a constant reminder that it is a species at risk.

Named after a red streak below a black crown in males, you will know it by a large white cheek patch and black-and-white ladder-like back pattern. A black cap and nape encircle the cheeky white patch.

It lives in mature pine savanna with a little understory shaped by prescribed or wildfires. It has evolved a complex social life to survive in this habitat. First, it lives in a family, working together to excavate cavities and raise chicks. Second, it constructs nesting and roosting holes in mature, live pines. It uses sap from pine trees to keep off predators.

No other bird excels at drilling cavities in live pine trees. And also in using resin from trees to defend itself.

By 1970, habitat destruction and wildfire suppression had driven it closer to extinction. In 1990, biologists embarked on an ambitious project to save it. Its population now stands between 15 000 and 30000 birds. This success got the attention of the US government. And in late 2020, they downgraded its conservation status to “near threatened.”

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Description

Quick Facts

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryobates borealis

Length: 7.9-9.1 inches

Weight: 1.5-1.8 ounces

Wingspan: 14.2 inches

Named for a thin line of red feathers on a male bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker is a unique bird. Alexander Wilson coined the name in the 18th century. In his time, cockades—ornaments or ribbons worn in hats—were trendy. The red line on the male bird reminded him of the cockades he always wore on his hat. 

It is a small bird. About eight to nine inches long, it is equal to a yellow-bellied sapsucker. It is slightly larger than a downy, but smaller than most woodpeckers.

Just like most woodpeckers, it is mainly black and white. A striking black stripe runs below its cheek. Among males, a small red line (cockade) borders the white patch. A horizontal pattern of black and white bars runs across its back.

Quick Features to Identify Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

  • Like most woodpeckers, it has black-and-white plumage and a black crown.
  • It has a distinctive large white patch on its cheeks, which helps to differentiate it from other woodpeckers in their range.
  • A black mustache band below the white cheek patch. The band extends down on either side of its lower bill.
  • Mostly black on the upper, with black and white horizontal bars on its wings and back. The horizontal bars on their back form a ladder-like pattern.
  • It has distinctive black spots along the sides of the breast, which transition to bars on the flanks.
  • Greyish white breast and belly
  • Black central tail feathers and white tail feathers bordered by black bars
  • A thin white line above its black eye
  • a tinny red line (known as the “cockade”) between the white patch and black crown. The cockade, found only in males, gave the bird its name. The mark is not visible in the field; it is not valid for identification.

Except for the red cockade, it is a monomorphic bird. Other than it, there is no difference between the sexes. The male has red feathers between the black crown and a white patch on the cheek. You can’t see it in the field because crown feathers cover it.  

Juveniles differ slightly from their parents. Male juveniles have a red crown that turns black a few months after fledging. 

You will rarely see males except during the breeding season and in territorial defenses.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a non-migratory and territorial bird. It is also a cooperative breeder, mating with the same partner for years. 

Similar Species to Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker


To the inexperienced birder, the red-cockaded woodpecker could easily be downy or hairy. It is easy to understand where they go wrong. These birds are about the same size and have black and white colors. 

You will mostly come across hairy and downy woodpeckers in the wild because they are abundant in their home ranges. Here is how they differ from a red-cockaded woodpecker:

  • Downy and hairy woodpeckers have white bellies with no marks. The red-cocked woodpecker has black spots on the flanks. 
  • Head to head; it is larger than the downy but smaller than the hairy woodpecker. The downy woodpecker measures 5.5 to 6.7 inches, the red-cockaded measures 7.8 to 9.1, and the hairy measures 7.1 to 10.2.
  • Both hairy and downy woodpeckers don’t have the distinctively large patch of a red-cockaded woodpecker. In its place, they have a thick black horizontal streak and an eye line that extends across their eyes to the back of their heads.
  • Downy and hairy woodpeckers have thick white patches on their backs. Red-cockaded backs have ladder-like backs and white patterns.

The Complex Social Life of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW)

RCW are social birds, living in families to forage and raise chicks. A family group comprises a breeding male and female pair and helpers. The helpers include two to four juveniles from the previous breeding season.

While most woodpeckers create cavities in dead trees, RCW dares to be different. They make theirs on living pine. They also peck holes in the bark to keep a sticky sap flowing around their cavities. The sap protects the bird’s cavities from predators like the rat snake.

Biologists believe excavation of cavities in live trees has led to:

  • They peck at the resin wells around the holes. The resin forms a perfect barrier against rat snakes, which often raid bird nests.
  • Cooperative breeding to reduce the hatchling mortality rate.
  • Endangerment of red-cockaded woodpeckers. RCWs construct cavities in live, mature pines. The decline in mature pines has increased the bird’s risk.

Cavity excavation in live pines is a monumental task for this tiny bird. Despite the challenges, the desire to breed supersedes all. And so the bird will work hard to construct the hole, which often takes between one and six years.

First, it must identify a suitable old pine. Then it digs a tunnel into the sapwood (four to six inches deep). All this time, the bird must avoid the resin from the tree.

When it reaches the heartwood, it then constructs a cavity chamber. When you view these holes, you may think it is a simple job for the bird. It takes years to build one. 

It is the Pickiest of Clients

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

It is a picky bird that only breeds and roosts on living trees at least 80 years old, preferably 100 years old. And it prefers longleaf pines. This bird sounds like a realtor’s worst nightmare. 

It is so demanding.

First, it needs a live pine tree to nest in. That’s because pine trees produce sticky sap. These saps provide the perfect defense against snakes.

Second, mature pine trees over 80 have sufficient heartwood (the older, non-living part of the wood) to build cavity chambers.

Heartwoods are very hard to drill, but this bird has a strategy. It selects pine infected by a red heart fungus. The fungus softens the heart of the pine, making it easier for the bird to drill. 

Third, it prefers pine forests with grass and herbs understory. This provides a perfect ecosystem for its survival.

Food and Foraging Habits of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker

RCW eats mostly insects and a few plants. Over 75 percent of its diet comprises arthropods. It mainly eats cockroaches and ants. It also consumes beetles, spiders, centipedes, moths, crickets, and larvae. A small portion of its diet comprises seeds and fruits. This can be from pines, poison ivy, magnolia, wax myrtle, wild cherry, or wild grape, 

RCWs have a peculiar foraging habit, often preferring large and older trees. First, it must flake away the bark. It then uses its specialized forked tongue to probe under the bark.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are Cooperative Breeders.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The breeding season begins in mid-April and lasts until July. A female lays three to five white eggs in the cavity of a breeding male. It takes ten to twelve days for the egg to hatch—quite a short incubation period. The incubation begins before the clutch is complete; each egg hatches at a different time.

The group helps incubate, brood, and raise the young. Females and helpers take turns incubating and brooding during the day, but the male is in charge at night. Both parents and helpers also help to feed the young.

The family breeds once a year. But if the clutch fails, it may try again.

Their young are altricial, meaning they hatch without feathers and with closed eyes. As a result, they are entirely helpless: unable to move, see, or eat on their own. Thus, they need a lot of care from both parents and helpers. 

In contrast, precocial birds like quails are hatched fully feathered, with open eyes, and able to eat soon.  

Once hatched, the chicks stay in the cavity nests for 24 to 27 days—then fledges. After that, parents feed them for up to six months.

The fledglings mature within a year. They can then either disperse or remain with the group. In most cases, the females disperse, but the males remain and become group helpers. They help to incubate eggs, feed nestlings, and brood fledglings.

Most nests and roosts are located 30–40 feet above the ground. It could be higher or lower than this.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker is Highly Territorial

A red-cockaded woodpecker builds nests and roosts in a cluster of cavity trees. A cluster may have up to 30 trees. It is pretty enough to provide the clan with cavities and food. On average, the groups have 10 to 30 trees in a 10-acre territory.

A cluster has cavities in various stages. Most would be complete and in use. Some would still be under construction, but the older ones would be taken by competitors. 

Each bird in the group has its roosting cavity. And must also defend it from small mammals and other birds. Instead of foraging or breeding, they spend most of their time defending territories. This behavior is quite common in areas where it occurs in high numbers.

The group members defend their territory, which can be up to 162 hectares. 

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Habitat and Range

This habitat specialist bird is a year-round resident of pine savanna forests maintained by frequent fires. For this reason, you will see it in forests with mature stands of pines and hardwoods and no midstory. Pine trees, though, are resistant to fire. RCW mainly prefers longleaf pines but can breed in other pines, like slash and loblolly.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have been extirpated from their northern ranges in Maryland, Missouri, and New Jersey. They now occur in small patches in the southeast US states.

They breed in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Sound

Known for their raspy vocals, they move in groups, chatting loudly in the forests. They make other sounds, including churts, repeated every two to four seconds. 

You will hear the churts as they fly in to roost or move to a nesting site. You will also hear a rattle that ends with a pitch drop during this time. And as they forage, you will hear soft, melodious, chortling calls. 

Finding the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpeckers thrive in pine trees. In protected areas, you will see them in national forests, wildlife reserves, and national parks.

Some places in protected areas are off-limits to the public. You can watch them, though, at some sites with public access. At these places, you can relish as you watch their nesting and foraging activities. You can take photos, but don’t disturb the birds. Always talk to rangers if you need help locating one.

Look for them in open stands of old pines with a clear understory. You will not find them in places with dense vegetation where you can’t easily see the pine trunks. You will easily spot their nesting and roosting trees because resin sap flows down the trunk around the cavities.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Conservation Status

Before the mid-1900s, red-cockaded woodpeckers were common in the pine forests of the southeast US. Now threatened, they occupy only a tiny portion of their original habitat. Across the US, they are threatened at the federal and state levels. The IUCN Red List lists them as a “near threatened species.”

It was first recorded as endangered in 1970. About 10,000 birds existed then. Three years later, the US enacted the Endangered Species Act. The act protects endangered species and their habitats. Since then, it has been a race against time to save it from the brink of extinction. 

Still, its population declined.

But it was in 1990 that serious conservation efforts kicked in. It received more funding and research. NGOs, the military, and private landowners also came on board.

Then, in late 2020, it was downgraded from an endangered species to a near-threatened. Its population is now stable. Biologists currently estimate their population at close to 30,000 living in 8,000 clans,

Here are the conservation efforts that saved the red-cockaded woodpecker:

  • Enactment of the Endangered Act in 1973
  • The US Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects the red-cockaded woodpecker, as does the Federal Endangered Species Act.
  • Release of breeding pairs at Dupuis Management Area in Florida, 
  • Management of nesting sites and habitats
  • Sparing nesting clusters from logging 

The Turning Point in the Conservation of Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Artificial nesting inserts have been the turning point in conserving the red-cockaded 

Here are three strategies that helped restore RCW populations.

The top is the construction of artificial cavities in mature, old pines. Biologists realized they could shorten the bird’s time to construct a nest. Instead of taking years to build a nest, the bird can get one within a week. So they carved out a section of a mature tree and then inserted an artificial nest. This method is the most respected and appears to have the most impact.

Using a chainsaw, you cut off a block of wood from the center of the pine tree and then insert a prefabricated cavity. Developed by David Allen, it expedited cavity excavation for the bird so it could breed sooner. Occupy them within a month or two.

The other method is the use of prescribed fires to manage pine forests. Fires are the lifeline of the pine forest ecosystem. Biologists use it to maintain the full suite of species and biological diversity endemic to pine forests. Without it, the pine ecosystem will not be suitable for this species.  

A third method exists, though it has yet to be widely used. Essentially, it entails placing a restrictor plate over an existing cavity. The plate has a hole that is the right size for the red-cockaded woodpecker. RCW can enter and exit the hole with the plate in place, but larger birds can’t enlarge or alter the entry hole.

Too Early to Celebrate

The population of this bird has improved. But ecologists say it is still too early to celebrate. Its population has improved after many years, but these gains could be wiped out soon.

First, this bird is a habitat specialist. As such, it may be more vulnerable to changing conditions than other birds. This means protecting it is the only sure way to conserve its habitat. 

Second, it has taken millions of dollars and decades of work to conserve this bird. Downgrading it now could undermine the gains made.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Fun Facts

  • The red-cockaded woodpecker drills the entry tunnel upward to the tree, with the hole facing downwards. The downward-facing hole drains sap out and ensures rainwater doesn’t flood the cavity. As soon as RCWs have excavated past the sapwood, they construct a nesting cavity in the heartwood.
  • It is one of the few woodpeckers endemic to the southeast US.
  • While other woodpeckers construct cavities in dead and rotting trees, they excavate living pine trees.
  • A cockade is an ornament or ribbon worn on a hat. Similarly, a red-cockaded woodpecker male has a red streak on his head.
  • They prefer to drink fresh water collected in cavities, leaves, or needles.
  • It does not visit backyards like most common birds.
  • Males roost in the best cavity, which is the most recent, centrally placed with heavy sap flow.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: Why is the red-cockaded woodpecker important?

Answer: RCWs are crucial to the ecosystem. As a keystone species, they create cavities in trees that other birds use later. They take years to develop a nesting or roosting hole. But once they stop using them, other birds move into them. These birds include bluebirds, chickadees, and titmice, among others. Interestingly, some woodpeckers, skilled enough to build their nests within weeks, prefer them too.

Small mammals also make use of their abandoned holes. Flying squirrels and other small mammals use these cavities once the RCW moves out.

Some species don’t even wait for the RCW to abandon them. They compete for these cavities with the builder. And sometimes, they destroy the eggs and hatchlings of the RCW.

Question: What is the main cause of the decline of red-cockaded woodpeckers?

Answer: Habitat destruction is the major cause of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s decline. Many factors can destroy habitats, but for this bird, it is the logging of pine trees.

Moreover, it is a habitat specialist bird. It survives only in pine forests with a clear understory. So when there is logging of pines or overgrowth of the midstory, it leads to their decline.

In the 1900s, commercial logging of pines ruined their habitat. Since then, its population has plunged until it nearly became extinct in 1970. But in 1990, ecologists ignited plans to save it from extinction. 

Another factor that causes their decline is the suppression of wildfires. Historically, wildfires caused by lightning in pine forests helped to control the midstory. But due to safety concerns, such fires have been suppressed in some woods. When you stop fires within their habitats, it causes lots of thickets. Studies have shown these birds decline in places with thickets. The scrubs make them easy prey.

Question: Where do red-cockaded woodpeckers nest?

Answer: The red-cockaded woodpecker nests in mature pine trees over 60 years old. The older, the better. But not just any tree will do. During the breeding season, a female selects the male’s roost cavity. A male hole is centrally placed and the most recently excavated among a nesting cluster. The nests are located 30–40 feet above the ground.

Question: Why does red-cockaded woodpecker prefer mature trees?

Answer: A red-cockaded woodpecker prefers mature trees over young ones for two reasons. First, red heart fungus mainly infects mature trees. The fungus makes the tree softer for the bird to excavate. Second, young trees have small diameters, which may need to be wider for cavity excavation.

The Red Cockade… a Constant Reminder of Vulnerability

The red-cockaded population has improved, and getting there has been long and arduous. Listed as endangered in 1970, conservation efforts since 1990 have brought it back from the brink of extinction. It is now listed as “near threatened.”

Native to the southeast US, red-cockaded is a habitat specialist that lives in pine forests. It lives in a cluster of nests comprising breeding male and female pairs and several helpers. The helpers and the parents incubate, brood, and feed the young.

The bird’s name comes from the red cockade between a white patch and a black crown. But this feature is not helpful for identification in the field. To identify it, look for a white patch on both sides of its face. A ladder-like black-and-white pattern quickly gives it away.

Yet the future of this bird still lies in the balance. But it remains a success story worth celebrating for now.

Nature has simple ways of passing messages to us. Could the thin line of red feathers on this bird’s head be one such message? To me, the red line serves as a constant reminder that the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a habitat specialist bird that is always at risk.

This bird is still vulnerable. And while scientists are researching ways to protect it, why not give a hand? You can start by donating to the conservation of the red-cockaded woodpecker.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top