The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: the resourceful bird making a comeback — Species Account

Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis)

NCM11002 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

In the southeastern corner of the U.S. lives a woodpecker that you might mistake for other commonly spotted black and white woodpeckers like the downy and hairy woodpecker, but is in fact a different species altogether. Unlike these imposers, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (pronounced like cock-ADE-ed) has a distinguishable white cheek that sets them apart from other woodpeckers and males have a small red stripe behind where their ears would be if you could see them, but this marking can sometimes be very difficult to see outside of photos. This red stripe is how they get their name, Red-cockaded, as in a “cockade,” is a ribbon or ornament wore on hats.

In reality, unless you are a birder, you probably won’t find these birds because you’d have to go looking in a very specific habitat. If you want to find this tree dweller you’d have to travel to the coastal areas from Virginia to Texas and look for some habitat that is uncommon for the area today because the Red-cockaded Woodpecker makes a living off of a very specific occupation. It hangs out and nests in live old growth pine tree stands only, making this species a habitat specialist. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker shows a preference for longleaf pines since those stands used to be immense in this region, yet it also occupies loblolly and slash pine stands as well. The trees must be at least 60 years old and to get even more specific, it prefers pines infected with red heart fungus (a.k.a. heartwood rot/heartrot) because the wood becomes limp and easy to manipulate for excavating nesting cavities and other holes in the pine trees. In fact, interestingly enough, their nesting cavities usually follow the same contour of the heartwood rot on the tree.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker classic habitat

Being a resident of old growth pine tree stands, the red cockaded woodpecker is one part of a greater fire-dependent ecosystem. Ecosystems that are fire-dependent rely on fire to maintain the quality of habitat that exists there. For example, the pine stands of the southeastern U.S. in which Red-cockaded Woodpeckers inhabit were formed from fires caused by repeated lightning strikes occurring about every 1-5 years. When fire strikes old stands of pine trees, the understory vegetation burns up and leaves behind a fresh regeneration for the soil and new plants to grow. If fires are prevented in these areas by people, usually in attempts to protect developed areas, then the understory vegetation will choke out the habitat and the whole ecosystem will transition to an area dominated by a different tree species from the understory. Therefore, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have an obligate relationship with pines and thus fire.

Many people think that primates are the only animals that are advanced enough to manipulate the environment for tools, but au contraire. Look a little closer at the purpose of those additional holes that I mentioned earlier and you will find that they are actually an intelligent defense tool! The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers peck small holes around their nesting cavities to fend off arboreal snakes that want to prey on their eggs. Snakes are one of the top predators for birds as they enjoy feeding on the eggs and chicks of almost any bird. The defense works as sap from the tree runs down the tree to block snakes from being able to enter the nest. How neat is that?!

Nesting cavity with holes for sap leak being made

Take a MTV Cribs tour of the woodpecker’s nesting cavity and you will discover secret hiding spots for the bird. The cavities usually extend upward and downward inside the tree truck to avoid predators that may try to reach in. They work extremely hard to make sure their cavities are unsuitable for nesting and sometimes they will even work on excavating a cavity for up to 2 years! And this work is multiplied even further because they will have numerous cavities within one territory. Even though they have numerous nests in one territory, they do this so they can take their pick for the best nest. Breeding males usually pick the most state-of-the-art (newly excavated) nest with the heaviest sap flow technology (typical men). Once the females lay their eggs the male takes over the home-maker role and incubates them throughout the night.

And not only do Red-cockaded Woodpeckers show ingenuity in creating tools to defend their nests, but they also display advanced behavioral adaptations by residing in large family units. Like some humans, these bird families are tightly-knit. Unlike most humans, the male fledgings from the previous year’s hatch will remain in their parents territory to help raise the next clutch of eggs. The male helpers will lend a hand in all of the parenting tasks, such as incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks. Additionally, they also will forage for food together in their family clans and are often easy to hear during this activity.

Family units hunting together

Searching around under the looser plates of bark on old rotting pine trees, the red cockaded woodpecker eats adult insects, their larvae, and their eggs. They will eat almost any arthropod that they can find on and under the bark, including ants and termites, centipedes, bark beetles, wood roaches, and the list goes on. It has also been documented that they also will forage for fruits and pine seeds. Some of the understory vegetation may provide the woodpeckers with a pick from a variety of berries, cherries and grapes. Although they can eat seeds and fruits, only about 10% of their foraging is conducted on the understory hardwood plant species. Scavenging in the family groups, the males will take to the upper pine tree trunks and the females will stick to the lower parts of the trees. Interestingly enough, sometimes the woodpeckers have others join them in foraging too. They have been spotted being accompanied by Eastern Bluebirds, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and other song birds. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers spend most of their time on the larger pines as opposed to the smaller ones which ornithologists believe is because the loosened bark on the larger trees has more surface area which is home to a greater amount of prey.

Up next we will discuss the environmental issues that the Red-cockaded Woodpecker faces: The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: the resourceful bird making a comeback — The Environmental Issue

If you would like to check out more animals on the Endangered Species List on your own, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of Threaten/Endangered Species in the U.S. and Foreign Countries.

Cornell University. Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. [Online] 2015 (accessed Apr 11, 2017).

Helmuth, L. Species Worth Saving: Why we should be thankful for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Slate. [Online] 2014 (accessed Apr 11, 2017).

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Safe Harbor's First Decade: Helping Landowners Help Endangered Wildlife (NC) [Online] 2005 (accessed Apr 11, 2017).

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Species Profile for Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Environmental Conservation Online System. [Online] 2017 (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 1: Unknown. Red-cockaded woodpecker: Everglades Tours. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 2: Ward, C. Jr. Bombing Range Is National Example for Wildlife Conservation. Voices Florida Wildlife Corridor. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 3: Clark, J. Central Louisiana Birding & Wildlife: Rapides and Grant Parishes, 2/14/16. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 4: glennsbirding. Birding with The Swede. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 5:Florida Birds. Erl Orf Photography. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

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