The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: the resourceful bird making a comeback — The Environmental Issue

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

(Leuconotopicus borealis)

The Environmental Issue: Habitat destruction, but is it such an issue anymore?



In the past century, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker has faced a dramatic decline in its population numbers as humans settled the southeastern U.S. and expansively developed the region. Once upon a time, before the logging industry boomed, the old growth pine forests were commonplace in the southeastern U.S. with massive historic pine stands dotting the landscape. As people settled, most of the woodpecker’s habitat was destroyed and used for logging or converted for other land practices. It has been estimated that 97% of their habitat was cut down. This human land use resulted in the listing of one of the first bird species under the Endangered Species Act in 1970.

logging practices

Since the large-scale land conversion of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s primary habitat, old-growth longleaf pine, the birds have transitioned slightly to be able to inhabit other similar old-growth pine stands and even some younger stands of pines. But, what is most surprising is that in areas where the dense understory has encroached on the pine stands, some Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are still able to persist for a short period of time. In parts of Florida, the woodpeckers have even been known to inhabit grassy wetlands and hybrid stands of slash pine and bald cypress for a while before retreating from the range. Although these occurrences do happen, the woodpeckers can only make do with this habitat for a short amount of time before habitat is no longer suitable.

Today there are many conservation strategies being used to try to bring this species back and the good news is that the efforts appears to be working! We couldn’t have all the endangered species dialog be doom and gloom, right? Currently, there are millions of acres of national and state public lands as well as military installations that are currently being managed with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s conservation in mind. Managers plan out carefully which trees will grow to support a woodpecker nest and frequent fires keep the understory species low. Recovery plans and as well as banding and breeding projects have been in operation for years and reports claim that artificial cavities have been a huge success for reestablishment of the species.


Additionally, the Endangered Species Act designation granted the species critical habitat protection from logging and that of course has been a huge help. With this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tries to work out deals with land owners, called safe harbor agreements, to encourage protection of the species off government property as well. However, some people, like Dougald McCormick, don’t always agree to these deals because the regulations hurt his family business – logging. If he allows the timber to grow to the maturity that the woodpeckers inhabit, he would be put under heavy federal regulations. So instead he harvests the timber just before its old enough for the woodpeckers to establish themselves in. He has expressed very loudly his feelings on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and even got a license plate that states I EAT RCWS (perhaps a little extreme..?). It has been documented that many private landowners do things like the this too. Other acts to avoid the feds includes the classic shoot, shovel, and shut up tactic. This is a practice common to all endangered species where landowners see an endangered species on their property, kill the animal, hide it, and keep it all a secret.

Nevertheless, all angry foresters aside, things seem to be looking up for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker after all. Let’s just hope that this species rise continues into the future and can serve as an example for the thousands of other endangered species in need of some good luck.

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 12, 2017).

Helmuth, L. Species Worth Saving: Why we should be thankful for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Slate. [Online] 2014 (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Safe Harbor's First Decade: Helping Landowners Help Endangered Wildlife (NC) [Online] 2005 (accessed Apr 12, 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: Ward, C. Jr. Bombing Range Is National Example for Wildlife Conservation. Voices Florida Wildlife Corridor. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 2: Unknown. Red-cockaded woodpecker: Everglades Tours. (accessed Apr 12, 2017).

Image 3: Benchill. Forestry in New Zealand. (accessed Apr 16, 2017).

Image 4: Ramirez, L. RCW Nest Monitoring. (accessed Apr 16, 2017).


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