Picoides borealisred-cockaded woodpecker

Geographic Range

Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) are indigenous to the southeastern United States. Historically, red-cockaded woodpeckers have been seen as far north as New Jersey and as far south as Florida. Over the past 30 years, their geographic range has decreased significantly and is limited to portions of southeastern Virginia, in Sussex and Southampton counties, the eastern half of North Carolina, most of South Carolina, the southern half of Georgia, and the Florida panhandle. Populations also exist in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, western Texas, and sparse locations in Oklahoma. They may be recently extinct from Missouri and Tennessee. As of 1999, the largest populations were located along the coasts of South Carolina and Florida, encompassing a contiguous range of 4,000 square kilometers. As of 2008, there were an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 adult red-cockaded woodpeckers. (BirdLife International, 2012; Conner, et al., 2001)


Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer mature longleaf pine ecosystems, originally encompassing upwards of 37 million hectares in the southeastern United States. Today, prime longleaf habitat is estimated at just 1.2 million ha. These woodpeckers are able to create cavities in many other different pine species such as loblolly, slash, short leaf, Virginia, pond, and pitch pines. However, these woodpeckers are most often located in longleaf pine forests, and inhabit elevations ranging from sea level to 850 m. These birds are entirely dependent upon mature (typically 100 years old or more) live pine trees to successfully create cavities within the tree and reach the decaying heartwood. Red-cockaded woodpeckers may also make cavities in trees infected by red heart fungus. This fungus may make it easier to create a cavity as it weakens the tree's heartwood. They create cavities 10 to 14 cm into the tree, whose average dimensions are 23 cm long by 10 cm wide. (BirdLife International, 2012; Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson and Jackson, 2004; Jackson, 1994; Rudolph, et al., 2002)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 850 m
    0.00 to 2788.71 ft

Physical Description

Red-cockaded woodpeckers range from 20 to 23 cm in length, with an average of 22 cm and weigh 45 to 50 g. These birds are patterned in black and white and have a wingspan of 35 to 38 cm. They have a grayish belly and breast, with black spots found on the outer edges. Red-cockaded woodpeckers have large patches of white feathers that cover the sides of their face and a white stripe above their eyes. These birds have a black bill with gray feathers found at the base. Males are typically larger than females. Males have red “cockaded” feathers, which refer to the red mark on the side of the males' cap. Otherwise, the sexes are identical. (Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson, 1994)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    45 to 50 g
    1.59 to 1.76 oz
  • Range length
    20 to 23 cm
    7.87 to 9.06 in
  • Average length
    22 cm
    8.66 in
  • Range wingspan
    35 to 38 cm
    13.78 to 14.96 in


Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a monogamous species. They have one mate and a "courting" process that lasts up to a year. As cooperative breeders, 2 to 4 males that are not in the mating pool help raise the nestlings. These males are usually 1 to 2 years old and progeny of one of the pair. To attract their mates, males have many ways of communicating with females. In the spring, males can tap on wood for short-distance communication. According to Jackson (1994), males can use a series of calls such as "szreks”, “wing whulls”, and "chits" as forms of communication. One of the most common ways for males to attract a mate is by participating in a flutter aerial display, a process in which males chase each other around trees, with their wings open until the point of exhaustion. Female participation in aerial displays has not been noted. (Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson, 1994; Khan and Walters, 2002; Khan, et al., 2001)

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have one clutch of 1 to 5 eggs in April or May. On average, only one egg is laid per day. Their breeding location is usually in the male's nesting site, which is selected based on the volume of gum (sap) flow. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are also known for having only one clutch per season. However, they can have up to three clutches if their first clutch was not successful. Failure may be due to conditions such as moving to a new nest or natural or prescribed fires. Their eggs are oval-shaped with an average length of 2.4 cm and breadth of 1.8 cm. Red-cockaded woodpecker eggs are shiny and white with a smooth and glossy texture. Egg incubation lasts 10 to 12 days. After hatching, these altricial birds weigh approximately 3.3 g. Four days after hatching, juvenile feathers appear, and by day 7 to 8 the classical red mark may appear on the males. Their eyes open around day 10 of development. By the time they have reached the fledgling stage, typically around day 26, red-cockaded woodpeckers weigh 42 to 45 g. These birds gain independence between 4 to 6 months and are sexually mature within 240 days. (Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson, 1994; Khan, et al., 2001; Rudolph, et al., 2002; Wilson, et al., 1995)

  • Breeding interval
    Red-cockaded woodpeckers breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    These birds breed from April to May.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    10 to 12 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 to 27 days
  • Range time to independence
    4 to 6 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    240 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    240 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    240 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    240 days

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have a large investment in raising their nestlings properly. At the beginning of the mating process, both the male and female stay together. During this time, males are more active either foraging or repairing their nest. After hatching, young nestlings stay under the care of their parents and "helpers" for 2 to 5 months. It has been documented that males are the dominant figure when it comes to raising the young. (Jackson, 1994; Khan, et al., 2001; Ligon, 1970)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


There is currently very little information available regarding the lifespan of red-cockaded woodpeckers. However, a wild individual in North Carolina was banded in 1984 and was found dead in 1999, which is a lifespan of at least 16.1 years. (Tacutu, et al., 2013)


Red-cockaded woodpeckers are diurnal. Most of their day involves foraging, flying, performing resin well maintenance, and self-maintenance, as well as brooding during the mating season. During the night, red-cockaded woodpeckers sleep alone unless they have nestlings, in which case the mother stays with them and the father finds another location to sleep. Because a cooperative group of woodpeckers have multiple cavities in their territory, sleeping separately is typically not a problem. During the mating season, both parents and helpers forage in a small group or alone. When foraging in another’s territory, red-cockaded woodpeckers use many forms of vocal communication to alert each other. To find food or a suitable home, these birds fly up to 5 km a day to find an empty nest. When they become tired from flying they walk, hop, or climb to adjacent tree branches. Self-maintenance is an important part of their day. They use methods such as preening, head-scratching, stretching, bathing, and sunbathing. Preening increases during the molt. Captive juvenile woodpeckers have also been known to eat their own feathers. Red-cockaded woodpeckers only use fresh water. After a rainstorm, they stand under or near a branch with water collected on it to bathe. (BirdLife International, 2012; Jackson, 1994; Khan, et al., 2001; Ligon, 1970)

  • Range territory size
    1 to 4 km^2

Home Range

In a long-leaf pine forest, red-cockaded woodpeckers forage at the ends of their home range, which can be as far as 2 km or larger depending on the condition of the environment. However, during the mating season, their range is significantly cut to keep the nestlings fed. A single cooperative breeding group utilizes about 80 ha (0.8 square km), although territories of cooperating groups may overlap. (BirdLife International, 2012; Jackson, 1994)

Communication and Perception

Red-cockaded woodpeckers use many different forms of verbal and non-verbal communication. These birds exhibit more than 20 different sounds assumed to elicit different responses. Some examples include a "churt", which is considered their typical call and a "sklit", which is an excited call. They also exhibit a scolding note, a rattle call, a return-to-nest call, and a short rattle note to indicate a disturbance. Their "kweek" call relates to the young, a "wicka" call alerts the female when the nest is being attacked, and a "she-u" call is related to territorial encounters. These woodpeckers may provide a "chortle" as a greeting call, loud or soft chirps for begging calls, and stress calls. A "shurz-u" suggests a warning call, while a "chit" warns of intruders. A distress cry is a loud scream given when they have been captured by a predator. When attracting a mate, male red-cockaded woodpeckers use a series of drumming noises to captivate females. Other forms of non-verbal communication include tapping, tongue drumming, and wing whulls. (Jackson, 1994; Conner, et al., 2001; Gowaty and Lennartz, 1985; Jackson, 1994; Rudolph, et al., 2002)

Food Habits

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are primarily insectivores, eating ants, beetles, various larvae, and other arthropods. They can also eat some fruits and seeds. Their diet is consistent throughout the year because these sources can be found year-round. Due to their vast food selection, their diet has not changed in the last 30 years. Their main food source can change depending on their location. In South Carolina, the main food source for adults and nestlings are wood roaches. In the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, their primary food source by biomass is ants, particularly arboreal ants. In captivity, red-cockaded woodpeckers eat many different items that are not found in their natural habitat such as mealworms, termites, crickets, peanut butter in a corn meal mixture, scrambled eggs, grapes, bananas, and apples. (Hanula and Engstrom, 2000; Hanula, et al., 2000; Hess and James, 1998; Jackson, 1994)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Red-cockaded woodpeckers have found a creative way to protect themselves from potential predators. After their nest is complete, they peck holes in the bark immediately surrounding their cavity, this pecking causes resin to be released from the tree. The stickiness of the resin deters snakes such as corn snakes or eastern black rat snakes from climbing into the cavity. However, snakes have adapted to the resin and some are able to avoid it by "over climbing", a method of climbing above the resin by using adjacent trees with sharing branches. Southern flying squirrels had previously been thought of as a predator or a competitor, but recent studies show they are neither. Although they share the same home, they do so at different times of the year, or when the cavities are unoccupied by the other species. (Conner, et al., 1996; Jackson, 1974; Neal, et al., 1998; Phillips Jr. and Gault, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

As cavity builders, red-cockaded woodpeckers impact the longleaf pine ecosystem. Woodpecker-created cavities in longleaf pines provide shelter to other animals such as southern flying squirrels. They carry at least two identifiable species of blood protazoans, Haemoproteus borgesi and Haemoproteus velans. Haemoproteus borgesi was first discovered in North America on these woodpeckers in 2000. In 2003, red-cockaded woodpeckers were studied at Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi for West Nile Virus (WNV) and other blood parasites. None of the red-cockaded woodpeckers caught were infected with blood parasites or WNV in this study. (Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson, 1974; Conner, et al., 2001; Dusek, et al., 2006; Jackson, 1974; Neal, et al., 1998; Phillips Jr. and Gault, 1997; Pung, et al., 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • blood parasites (Haemoproteus velans)
  • blood parasites (Haemoproteus borgesi)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have a minor positive impact on the economy. Property owners can be affected if they own land with longleaf pines. Landowners can be paid an incentive to provide suitable land as a habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers. In 1999, land owners were paid between $1,500 and $68,000 to build and install artificial cavities, to plant longleaf pines, and to maintain their land via prescribed fires. (Alder, 2008; Duncan, et al., 2001; Hyde, 1989; Stroup, 1997)

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Red-cockaded woodpeckers can potentially have a substantial negative impact on private landowners. Those landowners who are not involved in Safe Harbor Agreements with the government or conservation organizations can potentially lose thousands of dollars in lost timber harvests. Logging may be severely limited in areas potentially inhabited by red-cockaded woodpeckers. Logging of these habitats can cause substantial fines. Even landowners who do work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service can potentially lose money. In 1989, the cost of maintaining a 200 acres woodpecker site was estimated to cost $4,238 per site. (Alder, 2008; Duncan, et al., 2001; Hyde, 1989; Stroup, 1997)

Conservation Status

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are "endangered" on the US federal Endangered Species list and "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List. Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer to use longleaf pines as their main source for cavity creation. However, longleaf pines are commonly harvested by logging operations. This places red-cockaded woodpeckers at odds with logging. Many of these trees are cut down before they reach the mature age of about 100 years, which red-cockaded woodpeckers require. In 1979, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) started the largest recovery plan for the woodpeckers; the plan was rewritten in 1985, and is currently on-going. To increase the populations, groups such as the USFWS and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) are currently following updated recovery plans. Efforts to increase population sizes include installing artificial cavities on trees typically too young for red-cockaded woodpeckers to excavate, growing and protecting mature pines, using controlled fires to enhance the growth of longleaf pines, and moving female woodpeckers to areas with a large male population. The last revision of the federal recovery plan was completed in 2003. (Drake and Jones, 2002; Duncan, et al., 2001; Engstrom and Evans, 1990; Godown and Townsend Peterson, 2000; Hess and James, 1998; Jackson and Jackson, 2004; Jackson, 1977; Jackson, 1994; Richardson, et al., 2007)


Nathan Pool (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own


active at dawn and dusk

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate


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