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red-cockaded woodpecker

Picoides borealis

What do they look like?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have an average length of 20 to 23 cm and weigh 45 to 50 g. These birds have black and white feathers and 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 on the sides of their face and a white stripe above their eyes. These birds have a black bill with gray feathers at the base. Males and females can be difficult to tell apart. Males are usually larger and have a red mark on the side of their cap. Otherwise, males and females look very similar. (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

Where do they live?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) are found in the southeastern United States. In the past, red-cockaded woodpeckers have been seen as far north as New Jersey and as far south as Florida. Over the past 30 years, their range has become much smaller and is limited to parts 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. They can also be found in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, western Texas, and in parts of Oklahoma. They are no longer found in Missouri or Tennessee. As of 1999, their largest population was found along the coasts of South Carolina and Florida. As of 2008, there were an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 adult red-cockaded woodpeckers. (BirdLife International, 2012; Conner, et al., 2001)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer to live in longleaf pine forests, which are found in the southeastern United States. Unfortunately, this habitat is shrinking and is often destroyed. These woodpeckers are able to create cavities in other pine species as well such as loblolly, slash, short leaf, Virginia, pond, and pitch pines. However, these woodpeckers are most often found in longleaf pine forests and live in elevations ranging from sea level to 850 m. These birds live in live pine trees that are about 100 years old or older, so they can make 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 make cavities 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)

  • These animals are found in the following types of habitat
  • temperate
  • Range elevation
    0 to 850 m
    0.00 to 2788.71 ft

How do they reproduce?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a monogamous species, meaning males and females pair up and usually only breed with their mate. Red-cockaded woodpeckers court each other until they find a mate, this can last up to a year. These birds are cooperative breeders, which means that aside from the parents, other birds also help take care of their chicks. In this case, about 2 to 4 males that are not yet ready to mate help raise the nestlings. These males are usually 1 to 2 years old and were one of the parents' chicks from a previous year. To attract their mates, males have many ways of communicating with females. In the spring, males can communicate in short distances by tapping on wood. They can also use several calls including "szreks”, “wing whulls”, and "chits". One of the most common ways males attract a mate is by flying and fluttering their wings. In these displays the males chase each other around trees, with their wings open until they are exhausted. (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 each year. These birds usually only lay 1 egg per day. They usually breed near the male's nesting site, which is chosen based on how much sap is found there. These birds usually only have one clutch per season, but if their clutch fails they may have up to 3. Their clutches may fail because they moved to a new nest or because there was a fire in their area. Their eggs are oval-shaped with an average length of 2.4 cm and a width of 1.8 cm. Red-cockaded woodpecker eggs are shiny and white with a smooth and glossy texture. The eggs are incubated for 10 to 12 days. After hatching, their under-developed chicks weigh about 3.3 g. Four days after hatching, juvenile feathers appear, by day 7 to 8 males may develop their classical red marking, and their eyes open around day 10. By the time they are ready to fly, around day 26, red-cockaded woodpeckers weigh about 42 to 45 g. These birds become independent after 4 to 6 months and are ready to mate within 240 days. (Conner, et al., 2001; Jackson, 1994; Khan, et al., 2001; Rudolph, et al., 2002; Wilson, et al., 1995)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    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

Both male and female red-cockaded woodpeckers take care of their young. At the beginning of the mating process, the males and females stay together. During this time, males are more active, foraging or fixing their nest. Once the eggs begin hatching, young are cared for by their parents and the helpers for 2 to 5 months. Males are usually the dominant figure when 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

How long do they live?

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)

How do they behave?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are active during the day. They spend most of their day looking for food, flying, taking care of themselves, and during the mating season, they brood their eggs. At night, red-cockaded woodpeckers sleep alone unless they have nestlings, in which case the mother stays with them and the father sleeps somewhere else. Because they have multiple cavities in their territory, there are usually plenty of places to sleep. During the mating season, both parents and helpers look for food in a small group or alone. When they forage in a different territory, red-cockaded woodpeckers make noises to alert each other. To find food or a good 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 tree branches. They take care of themselves by preening, head-scratching, stretching, bathing, and sunbathing. Red-cockaded woodpeckers preen more when they molt. Young captive woodpeckers may also eat their own feathers. These birds only use fresh water. After a rainstorm, they stand under or near a branch with water 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 look for food at the ends of their home range, which can be as far as 2 km or larger. However, during the mating season, their range is significantly cut to keep the nestlings fed. A single breeding group uses about 80 ha (0.8 square km), although territories of other groups may overlap. (BirdLife International, 2012; Jackson, 1994)

How do they communicate with each other?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have many different forms of communication. These birds make more than 20 different sounds. Some examples include a "churt", which is their typical call and a "sklit", which is an excited call. They also make a scolding note, a rattle call, a return-to-nest call, and a short rattle note when they are disturbed. Their "kweek" call has to do with their young, a "wicka" call lets the female know when the nest is being attacked, and a "she-u" call is territorial. These woodpeckers may also give a "chortle" as a greeting call, soft or loud chirps for begging calls, and stress calls. A "shurz-u" is a warning call, while a "chit" warns of intruders. They also make a distress cry when they are captured by a predator. When attracting a mate, male red-cockaded woodpeckers make drumming noises. These birds also tap, tongue drum, and ruffle their wings to communicate. (Conner, et al., 2001; Gowaty and Lennartz, 1985; Jackson, 1994; Rudolph, et al., 2002)

What do they eat?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers mostly eat insects such as ants, beetles, and larvae from several species. They can also eat some fruits and seeds. Their diet stays the same throughout the year because their food can be found year-round. 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 main food source is ants, particularly arboreal ants. In captivity, red-cockaded woodpeckers eat many different foods 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

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have a creative way to protect themselves from predators. After their nest is built, they peck holes in the bark around the cavity. This pecking causes resin to be released from the tree. The stickiness of the resin stops snakes such as corn snakes or eastern black rat snakes from climbing into the cavity. However, some snakes do not mind the resin and some are able to avoid it by climbing above the resin by using nearby trees that share branches. Southern flying squirrels were once thought of as predators or competitors, but they do not seem to be either. 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)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

By building cavities, red-cockaded woodpeckers impact the longleaf pine ecosystem. Woodpecker-created cavities in longleaf pines give shelter to other animals such as southern flying squirrels. These birds also carry at least two species of blood parasites. (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 or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • blood parasites (Haemoproteus velans)
  • blood parasites (Haemoproteus borgesi)

Do they cause problems?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers can be costly to landowners. Landowners who are not involved in Safe Harbor Agreements with the government or conservation organizations can lose thousands of dollars in lost timber harvests. Logging may be very limited in areas inhabited by red-cockaded woodpeckers and logging of these areas can cause large fines. Even landowners who do work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service might lose money. In 1989, the cost of caring for a 200 acres woodpecker site was about $4,238 per site. (Alder, 2008; Duncan, et al., 2001; Hyde, 1989; Stroup, 1997)

How do they interact with us?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have a small impact on the economy. Landowners that have longleaf pines on their property can be paid to provide a suitable habitat for these birds. 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. (Alder, 2008; Duncan, et al., 2001; Hyde, 1989; Stroup, 1997)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • ecotourism
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are considered endangered on the US federal Endangered Species list and vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer making cavities in longleaf pines. However, longleaf pines are often logged. Many of these trees are cut down before they reach the mature age of about 100 years, which red-cockaded woodpeckers need. In 1979, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) started a recovery plan for the woodpeckers; the plan was rewritten in 1985, and is still on-going. To increase their population, groups such as the USFWS and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) are following updated recovery plans. Efforts to increase their numbers include installing man-made cavities on trees that are too young for red-cockaded woodpeckers to build, growing and protecting mature pines, using controlled fires to help the growth of longleaf pines, and moving female woodpeckers to areas with more males. (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.


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Engstrom, R., G. Evans. 1990. Hurricane damage to red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) cavity trees. The Auk, 107/3: 608-610.

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Haig, S., J. Rhymer, D. Heckel. 1994. Population differentiation in randomly amplified polymorphic DNA of red-cockaded woodpeckers Picoides borealis. Molecular Ecology, 3: 581-595.

Hanula, J., R. Engstrom. 2000. Comparison of red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) nestling diet in oldgrowth and old-field longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) habitats. The American Midland Naturalist, 144/2: 370-376.

Hanula, J., D. Lipscomb, K. Franzreb, S. Loeb. 2000. Diet of nestling red-cockaded woodpeckers at three locations. Journal of Field Ornithology, 71/1: 126-134.

Hess, C., F. James. 1998. Diet of the Red-cockaded woodpecker in the Apalachicola National Forest. Journal of Wildlife Management, 62/2: 509-517.

Hooper, R., M. Lennartz. 1981. Foraging behavior of the red-cockaded woodpecker in South Carolina. The Auk, 98/2: 321-324.

Hyde, W. 1989. Marginal costs of managing endangered species: the case of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Journal of Agricultural Economics Research, 41/2: 12-19.

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Khan, M., J. Walters. 2002. Effects of helpers on breeder survival in the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 51/4: 336-344.

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Phillips Jr., L., K. Gault. 1997. Predation of red-cockaded woodpecker young by a corn snake. Florida Field Naturalist, 25/2: 67-68.

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Stroup, R. 1997. The economics of compensating property owners. Contemporary Economic Policy, 15/4: 55-65.

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University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Pool, N. 2014. "Picoides borealis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 30, 2014 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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