Red-cockaded Woodpecker Wednesday

Last week we learned about the Nuttall’s Woodpecker, who is endemic (restricted to) to California. This week, we are heading to the opposite coast to learn about the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker has been on the Endangered Species List since 1970. Because of this, they are one of the best-studied woodpeckers in North America and are intensely managed.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis)


Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are medium-sized with short, straight bills. They are “zebra-backed” (like the Nuttall’s) and have bright white cheeks with black malar stripes. Males have a small red patch of feathers on the rear of their crown and above their cheeks. This is the “cockade” that this species is named for.(A cockade is a small ornament or ribbon worn on a hat). However, the cockade is almost invisible in the field, making it extremely difficult to distinguish the sexes. Juveniles are duller than adults.

A male with his red “cockade” (Image via


All the southeastern United States from Texas to North Carolina. Small populations in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southeast Virginia. In John James Audubon’s time (mid-1800s) he considered the Red-cockaded abundant from New Jersey southward to Texas, but it’s range has been drastically diminished, about an 86% decrease between 1966 and 2014            (according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey).


Old-growth pine forests, particularly longleaf pine. In order to thrive Red-cockadeds need pine forests that are extensive, living, and maintained by fire to clear undergrowth every 1 to 5 years. Mature trees that have developed red-heart fungus are also important so it’s easier for the woodpeckers to excavate.


Mainly arthropods and insects (50% being ants) and some fruits and seeds. They forage by finding insects on tree barks. Females tend to forage on the lower trunk and males on the upper trunk and limbs. Family groups usually forage together.

A female Red-cockaded Woodpecer (Todd Engstrom/CLO via


Mating pairs can form throughout the year, but mainly in early spring. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are monogamous, but sometimes switch their partner between breeding seasons. Courtship displays include “corkscrew” flights will rapid calls and flutter-flights. Like the Acorn Woodpecker, Red-cockaded are cooperative breeders, meaning offspring will stay and help raise the new young after they fledge.

They are the only North American woodpecker to nest almost exclusively in live trees. Females lay between 2-5 eggs and are incubated by the parents and helpers for about 10-11 days. The young fledge between 26-29 days. Even though they can feed themselves, the young are usually fed by the male or helpers for up to 5 months.


Very vocal. A beewr or peew that starts hoarse and gets clearer the more excited the bird gets. A sharp peet!


Before European settlement of North America, it’s estimated that there were between 920,000 and 1.5 million breeding pairs. Populations have declined dramatically due to clear-cutting pine forests and fire suppression. It’s now estimated that there are around 14,068 (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are intensely managed. Management strategies include prescribed fires and metal plates in nest cavities to restrict large species from taking over breeding spots, and habitat conservation by both federal and private land owners.

Fun Facts:

  • Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to be aggressive towards Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays.
  • Families have multiple nest cavity sites on their territory. The male roosts in the best one that has the most sap flow. This is where the female lays the eggs, and the male incubates them at night.


Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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