Red-cockaded Woodpecker

DESCRIPTION - This small black and white bird is about 7 inches (18 cm) long and is readily identified by a large white cheek patch, ladder-back appearance and distinctive call readily identify it. A small patch of red feathers on the cheek of the male, the red-cockade, is usually not visible. Otherwise the sexes are similar in appearance.

DISTRIBUTION - Red-cockaded woodpeckers were originally found in open, mature pinewoods in the south from Virginia through Texas and Oklahoma. Most red-cockadeds are now in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. The species is nonmigratory and spends most of its life within a few hundred acres of its nesting site.

HABITATS - The red-cockaded woodpecker has highly specialized habitat requirements, which account for its endangered status. Its cavity trees are found only in mature pine forests containing trees greater than about 60 years of age which are fairly open and free of a hardwood understory. Such sites were maintained historically by wildfires and by fires set by Indians. At one time these pine forests covered millions of acres in the southern coastal plain.

GENERAL BIOLOGY - The red-cockaded woodpecker is unique. It is the only woodpecker that excavates a cavity in a living tree. It also has an advanced social system and lives in a group called a clan with other red-cockadeds. A clan is composed of the breeding male and female and sometimes helper birds, usually the male offspring. Helpers assist in all phases of reproduction, including incubating eggs, feeding the young and excavating new cavities. The clan stays together year round. Each member of the clan has its own roost cavity. The clan roosts in trees called a colony or cluster. Red-cockaded nesting takes place in the spring. Two to four white eggs are laid in the breeding male's cavity. The young hatch in 10 to 12 days and spend about 26 days in the nest. Their diet consists of spiders, wood roaches, centipedes and other arthropods. Adults also occasionally feed on wax myrtle, blueberry, poison ivy, corn ear worms and sweet bay berries. The red-cockaded spends much of its time excavating a cavity - it may take up to a year or more to do so. Most old pines selected for excavation have a fungal heartwood rot, called red heart disease, which probably allows for easier excavation. The red-cockaded also pecks holes around the cavity in the sapwood. The holes are called resin wells. This causes large quantities of sap to coat much of the tree, giving it a candle-like appearance. The sap is thought to aid in deterring predators such as raccoons and rat snakes which are adept at climbing.

LIMITING FACTORS - Habitat alteration and fragmentation are the chief threats to the red-cockaded woodpecker. Also, modern forestry practices seldom allow pine stands to reach the age necessary for woodpecker use. Other threats include demographic isolation and clearcutting of entire colony areas. Even when protected from logging, certain management practices are still required. Red-cockadeds need open park-like stands free of hardwood understory. This habitat is best achieved through the use of controlled fires which kill the hardwoods but not the pines.

PROTECTION - The red-cockaded woodpecker is listed as an endangered species at the federal level and the state level in all states where it occurs, including Florida. Although many red-cockaded woodpeckers occur on private lands, our public lands such as state parks and forests, national forests, wildlife refuges and military reservations are probably the best locations for maintaining the species.

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