Meet the red-cockaded woodpecker

A red-cockaded woodpecker on a tree looking at the camera
Aren’t they cute? Photo by Julio Mulero. Retrieved from Flickr on 06/16/2022.

You might have missed it, but a big conservation bill passed in the House of Representative this week: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

This bill is HUGE news for conservation. There are currently more than 1,600 endangered or threatened species living in the United States. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides protection for them, but it doesn’t have funding to support conservation efforts. In addition, there are 12,000 species of wildlife and plants that need some sort of conservation assistance even if they aren’t currently endangered.

This is where the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act comes in: it proposes to create an annual fund of more than $1.3 billion to help maintain populations of threatened species. Basically, the money will go to restore habitat and help states implement the strategies outlined in their Wildlife Action Plans.

One of the species who will benefit from the bill is the red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis). This little woodpecker lives in the southeastern United States. They’re pretty tiny – about 8 inches long with a wingspan between 13 and 16 inches.

Where’s the red?

You probably have two initial questions about the red-cockaded woodpecker: what on earth does ‘cockaded’ mean and where is the red on this bird?? These are great questions! After all, these birds look like they’re pretty much all black and white.

A cockade is an old-timey term for an ornament that goes on your hat. They’re usually a knot of ribbons arranged in a circle or oval, and they often signal rank.

Hat with a black cockade attached. Photo by Hugh Talman (Smithsonian Institution). Retrieved from Flickr on 06/15/2022.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers obviously don’t have cockades (they don’t wear hats); BUT males do have a few red feathers on the sides of their heads between their crowns and cheek patches. You know, where a cockade would go if birds wore hats.

Unfortunately, this patch of red feathers is hard to see, since it is only displayed when the male is excited. It is rarely seen in the field, so you shouldn’t rely on seeing the cockade to identify red-cockaded woodpeckers when birdwatching.


Red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders, which means that young receive care from both parents and alloparents (individuals who aren’t their parents). A breeding group consists of a breeding pair (the male and female who are reproducing) and between zero and six adult helpers. These helpers don’t have the chance to breed; instead, they just help take care of the breeding pair’s nestlings by bringing food and cleaning the nest of waste.

Now, these alloparents usually aren’t just random birds. Instead, they are usually related to the breeding pair. You see, when red-cockaded woodpeckers are old enough, they either leave their natal territory or stay to become a helper. The vast majority of females leave to search for a mate and territory of their own; males are more likely to become helpers for their parents, although some do leave to look for their own territory.

Live in tree cavities

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in pine trees, specifically in cavities in a pine tree. Now, this in itself isn’t particularly remarkable; as far as I could find, all woodpecker species nest in tree cavities. Of the woodpecker species that excavate their own tree cavities, most create their homes in dead trees (where the wood is rotten and soft). Red-cockaded woodpeckers, on the other hand, are special because they are the only woodpecker species to excavate cavities exclusively in living pine trees.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are very particular about the trees they excavate. They bore out cavities in trees that suffer from red heart disease. This fungus attacks a pine tree’s trunk and makes the inner wood (the heartwood) soft. Thus, once the woodpeckers make it through the hard outer bark, it’s smooth sailing to take out the soft heartwood! It takes between one and six years for a cavity to be excavated.

Remember how red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders and live in groups? Well, each red-cockaded woodpecker lives in it’s own tree cavity within the group’s territory. A group of cavity trees is called a cluster, and a group could have twenty or more cavity trees on their territory.

Snack time. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from Flickr on 06/16/2022.

Built-in nest defense system

Living in a living pine tree comes with an important benefit: nest defense. Since the trees are still alive, they are actively creating sap. Red-cockaded woodpeckers keep the sap flowing out of the trees by drilling tiny wells below the entrance to their cavity; they maintain these wells so they don’t get clogged. This sap seems to act as a defense mechanism by helping keep rat snakes and potentially other predators out of the nest. It’s hard to climb into a nest that is covered in sap!

Role in the ecosystem

Red-cockaded woodpeckers also play an important part in the ecosystem of southern pine forests. The cavities that they excavate can be used by a variety of other birds and mammals, like chickadees, bluebirds, and titmice. Sometimes, larger woodpeckers like northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers will even take a cavity from a red-cockaded woodpecker. They then enlarge it, sometimes to the point where eastern screech owls and raccoons will use it later. Flying squirrels and insects like bees and wasps may also find a home in red-cockaded woodpecker cavities.

Need a very specific forest

Now remember: red-cockaded woodpeckers need a specific type of tree to nest in, one that has red heart disease. Indeed, red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer to nest in longleaf pines that are over 80 years old, since these trees often have red heart disease.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers also prefer to live in open pine woodlands. These are forests that don’t have a lot of vegetation on the ground; frequent fires keep the ground clear while sparing the fire-resistant pines. In fact, fires are essential for making the perfect red-cockaded woodpecker habitat, as they reduce competition from other trees while encouraging pine trees to grow. Fire may also help keep the forest midstory from getting too tall, which would give predators an easy way to climb into the woodpecker nest.

Longleaf pine forest. See how open it is? Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Retrieved from Flickr on 06/16/2022.

As I said earlier, red-cockaded woodpeckers are one of the species that would benefit from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. It’s estimated that there are only about 12,500 birds left in America, or about 1% of their original population. They used to be found as far north as Maryland, but are now extinct in Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

Habitat destruction is a major reason that red-cockaded woodpeckers are struggling today. Remember, they need a specific forest to live in. They have to have old pine trees that have contracted red heart rot. As we cut down these pines, their habitats become fragmented. This makes it difficult for young birds to find places to live and mates. In addition, as they search for good pines, the red-cockaded woodpecker starts to have to compete for trees with other woodpecker species.

The good news is that there are ways to help the red-cockaded woodpecker. Controlled burns help make nesting sites more preferable to the birds. Protecting the old-growth, large pine trees from logging gives red-cockaded woodpeckers a place to live. Some places have even started making artificial cavities for red-cockaded woodpeckers to nest in.

Of course, all of this needs money in order to succeed. Passing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in the House is a good first step; hopefully it will also pass in the Senate and some much cash will start flowing to help the red-cockaded woodpecker and other species survive.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


National Wildlife Foundation

All About Birds

University of Kentucky

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