Tuesday 18 June
Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis)
Red-cockaded woodpecker fact file
- Find out more
- Print factsheet
Red-cockaded woodpecker description
The red-cockaded woodpecker may not be the most striking woodpecker in appearance, but it is possibly the most studied woodpecker species in the world (4), due to its dependence on a very particular habitat type. This medium-sized bird can be easily distinguished from other woodpeckers within its range by the white cheeks, which contrast sharply with a black crown (5). The back and wings are also black, spotted with white, resulting in the plumage appearing dark grey from a distance, and the underparts typically look dirty white (5). The only colour in its monochromatic plumage is a tiny red tuft above the eyes of the male, although this can rarely be seen (5). It is after this minute patch of feathers that the bird is named, as it was thought to resemble a cockade (a rosette or knot of ribbons worn on a hat) (5). The red-cockaded woodpecker has a bill like that of other woodpeckers, wedge-shaped and with a chisel-like tip, providing an efficient tool with which to excavate cavities in tree trunks (5). Also typical of all woodpeckers is its tail, which has stiff feathers that enable the tail to be used as a prop when the bird is pecking at a tree (6).
- Length: 22 cm (2)
Red-cockaded woodpecker biology
The life of a red-cockaded woodpecker is rather different to that of other North American woodpeckers; its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a social bird that lives in family groups of two to five individuals (4) (7). The red-cockaded woodpeckers in each family group roost and nest together (5), in cavities that have been excavated in ancient pines, often over 100 years old (2). Eggs are laid within a cavity from late April to early June (2), and all members of the family group may help in raising the chicks (4) (7).
The family group sometimes also searches for food together (5). When feeding, the red-cockaded woodpecker is an active bird, moving up and down trunks, along branches, and changing trees frequently, showing a preference for larger trees (5). It uses its chisel-like bill to pry off pieces of bark to search for insects beneath, leaving a trail of bark shards on the forest floor. Occasionally, this woodpecker may descend to the forest floor, where it progresses in short hops (5).Top
Red-cockaded woodpecker range
Once found throughout southeast USA (1), the red-cockaded woodpecker’s range is now much reduced, and covers an area that extends from Oklahoma east to Virginia, and south to Florida and Texas (7). Within this area, the species now occurs as approximately 30 isolated populations (2).Top
Red-cockaded woodpecker habitat
The red-cockaded woodpecker is found only in mature pine forests (8), where fires occur every one to five years (7). This frequency of fires results in a forest that is rather open and has little understorey (8).Top
Red-cockaded woodpecker statusTop
Red-cockaded woodpecker threats
Native to the pine forests of the southeast USA, the red-cockaded woodpecker is a poignant indicator of the status of this unique ecosystem; the decline in woodpecker populations reflects the devastating loss of this pine habitat (7). Man has altered this ecosystem, making areas unsuitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker, and leaving populations fragmented (2) (4).
Unfortunately, its Endangered status listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had some unintended negative impacts on this species. Some owners of land containing suitable habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker are concerned for the regulations that would be imposed on the use of their land if it was discovered to harbour populations of an endangered species. As a result, landowners attempt to make their land unattractive to the woodpecker, by removing old pines, and suppressing fires in order to let the understorey thrive (8). Elsewhere too, as human populations grow and occupy new areas, the pressure to prevent natural occurring forest fires increases (2).Top
Red-cockaded woodpecker conservation
The red-cockaded woodpecker is listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which means that it is illegal to hunt, harm, kill, or capture this species (3). This means it is also unlawful to modify or degrade suitable habitat as this would harm the woodpecker, by impairing its ability to feed or breed (3). Whilst a very well intended action, the listing as Endangered, as mentioned above, has actually had some negative impacts (8). However, there are many other conservation actions in place for this well-studied species. Where possible, regular burning and understorey clearance takes place in pine forests, creating a habitat that is suitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Elsewhere, some private landowners are offered financial incentives to look after their land in a way that will be attractive to this species (2).Top
Find out more
To learn about a program which aims to conserve the red-cockaded woodpecker and the ecosystem upon which it depends see:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
AuthenticationThis information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: email@example.comTop
- IUCN Red List (September, 2008)
- Birdlife International (September, 2009)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (September, 2009)
- Jackson, J.A. (1994) Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Dunne, P. (2006) Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Conner, R.N., Rudolph, D.C. and Walters, J.R. (2001) The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Surviving in a Fire-Maintained Ecosystem. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
- Wells, J.V. (2007) Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Van Dyke, F. (2003) Conservation Biology: Foundations, Concepts, Applications. McGraw-Hill, London.
More »Related species
Play the Team WILD game
MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.
Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials
Copyright in this website and materials contained on this website (Material) belongs to Wildscreen or its licensors.
Visitors to this website (End Users) are entitled to:
- view the contents of, and Material on, the website;
- download and retain copies of the Material on their personal systems in digital form in low resolution for their own personal use;
- teachers, lecturers and students may incorporate the Material in their educational material (including, but not limited to, their lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and projects) in hard copy and digital format for use within a registered educational establishment, provided that the integrity of the Material is maintained and that copyright ownership and authorship is appropriately acknowledged by the End User.
End Users shall not copy or otherwise extract, alter or manipulate Material other than as permitted in these Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials.
Additional use of flagged material
Green flagged material
Certain Material on this website (Licence 4 Material) displays a green flag next to the Material and is available for not-for-profit conservation or educational use. This material may be used by End Users, who are individuals or organisations that are in our opinion not-for-profit, for their not-for-profit conservation or not-for-profit educational purposes. Low resolution, watermarked images may be copied from this website by such End Users for such purposes. If you require high resolution or non-watermarked versions of the Material, please contact Wildscreen with details of your proposed use.
Creative commons material
Certain Material on this website has been licensed to Wildscreen under a Creative Commons Licence. These images are clearly marked with the Creative Commons buttons and may be used by End Users only in the way allowed by the specific Creative Commons Licence under which they have been submitted. Please see http://creativecommons.org for details.
Any other use
Please contact the copyright owners directly (copyright and contact details are shown for each media item) to negotiate terms and conditions for any use of Material other than those expressly permitted above. Please note that many of the contributors to ARKive are commercial operators and may request a fee for such use.
Save as permitted above, no person or organisation is permitted to incorporate any copyright material from this website into any other work or publication in any format (this includes but is not limited to: websites, Apps, CDs, DVDs, intranets, extranets, signage, digital communications or on printed materials for external or other distribution). Use of the Material for promotional, administrative or for-profit purposes is not permitted.