Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker The red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) is an endangered, nonmigratory bird species found in Alabama. It is endemic to pine forests in the southeastern United States, including much of Alabama. This woodpecker species is unique, because it excavates its nest holes in live trees, unlike other woodpeckers, which nest in dead trees. In Alabama, the highest concentrations of this species are found in the Oakmulgee, Talladega, and Conecuh National Forests.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is in the Order Piciformes and the Family Picidae, which includes all of the woodpeckers as well as several other related species such as sapsuckers. The species scientific name derives from the Greek druos (“woodland”) and bates (“walker”) and the Latin word for “northern.”

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are nonmigratory and thus do not have separate nesting and breeding habitats. Males are differentiated from females by the red streaks on each side of their heads, called cockades, hence the common name of the species. Males are slightly larger than females, but otherwise the two sexes are quite difficult to tell apart. This species has an average wingspan of 14.2 inches (36 centimeters). Species that appear similar to the red-cockaded woodpecker include the red-bellied woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker. The red-bellied woodpecker can be distinguished by the large amount of red coloration on the back of its head. The hairy woodpecker appears even more similar to the red-cockaded woodpecker, but this woodpecker has a red spot on the back of its head rather than a red cockade.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are monogamous, meaning that they only mate with one other individual each breeding season. Most of the time, the pair breeds for life. The courtship process typically lasts around a year. Males attract females by tapping on wood, making particular calls, and performing aerial displays. Their typical yearly breeding season is between April and May. These birds excavate nest cavities in pine trees, usually longleaf pines, and typically in older pines, because these trees are more susceptible to a fungus called red heart disease. This fungus softens the inner wood of the tree, making cavity excavation easier. Live trees also provide these woodpeckers with a special type of defense for their nests. They bore into a tree’s resin wells surrounding the cavity, which results in the resin dripping down the tree. This makes the tree slippery and difficult to grip, deterring predators such as rat snakes from reaching the cavity. In addition, these woodpeckers peel bark off the tree around their cavity, also to ensure that predators are unable to easily climb into their homes. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in groups that work together to protect their territory and live in aggregates of cavity trees called clusters. The group excavates multiple cavities to ensure that they have many places to rest and take shelter.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers typically lay three eggs, and offspring are altricial, meaning they require parental care after hatching until they fledge. They are born without feathers and with their eyes closed. The female of the group will lay her eggs in the breeding male’s cavity, as it is typically the more recently excavated one. A recently excavated cavity has more resin wells dripping down the tree and is thus better for deterring predators. The pair works together to incubate their eggs, with the help of several helper males who are related to the pair and who have not yet reached maturity. It takes approximately 240 days for an individual to reach sexual maturity, but males typically serve as helpers for their first and sometimes second breeding season. The helpers in this cooperative breeding system feed nestlings, deter predators, and take turns in incubating the eggs. They also aid in defending territory and creating new nesting sites.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers primarily feed on insects but also eat seeds and fruit. They forage in groups split into males and females; females search lower branches while males search higher in the trees. They search through the bark to find small insects such as ants and beetles. Primarily, they forage on pine trees and feed most notably on the broad wood cockroach. In fact, this roach species makes up more than 50 percent of the red-cockaded woodpecker diet.

This species faces extirpation in much of its range, including Alabama, because of threats such as logging, development, land-clearing, and agriculture, as well as a seemingly unusual reason: a lack of fire. The native open longleaf pine ecosystem was populated by species adapted to periodic burning, but fire suppression results in a forest with a higher density of hardwoods and denser understory that is ill-suited for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Today, the red-cockaded woodpecker’s habitat is only about three percent of its historical size, and what is left has been vastly degraded. The species is listed as “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species in its ecosystem, meaning that many other species depend upon it. This woodpecker is also an example of an ecosystem engineer, which is a species that alters the environment in a way that makes a resource available to other species. In this case, the “resource” is the cavities that these woodpeckers excavate: up to 30 other species have been recorded using these cavities. These woodpeckers are also important for tracking the presence of red heart disease. Red-cockaded woodpecker cavities are directly correlated with the presence of this fungus, so they can be used to gain an understanding of its prevalence.

Currently, there is management occurring in order to increase the numbers of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a team to revise the red-cockaded woodpecker’s original recovery plan in 1995, and this group of 15 members has worked for years to determine how to best help this species to recover. The recovery plan includes such interventions as prescribed burns in order to keep longleaf pine habitat suitable for these woodpeckers and the construction of artificial nesting cavities. These have been created using a variety of methods, ranging from building nest boxes to carving out cavities with chainsaws. Longleaf pines are also being replanted by the National Forest Foundation, which has teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service to create a project called America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. Since 2010, these groups have planted more than one million longleaf pines in the Southeast.

Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge In addition to this nation-wide recovery plan, many states have also taken measures to aid in red-cockaded woodpecker recovery. For example, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked together to make a recovery program called the Safe Harbor Program, which provides incentives to private landowners in return for agreeing to aid in the conservation to this species. Many red-cockaded woodpeckers live on private lands, so this effort is crucial to their survival.

This species is also being reintroduced into some of the historic habitat from which it was previously extirpated. These efforts have not been in vain: In 1993, there were an estimated 4,694 clusters, and in 2006 there were an estimated 6,105 clusters. As of 2019, the current population is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 individuals, with about 600 to 800 of them in Alabama. These birds are likely to be spotted where their longleaf pine habitat is left largely intact. Areas in Alabama with large longleaf stands include Talladega National Forest, Conecuh National Forest, and the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge. Those who wish to see red-cockaded woodpeckers in person can visit the Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forest, as this is where most of Alabama’s clusters of this species can be found.

Additional Resources

Jackson, Jerome A. “Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Pine Red Heart Disease.” The Auk 94 (January 1977): 160-63.

Lennartz, Michael R., Robert G. Hooper, and Richard F. Harlow. “Sociality and Cooperative Breeding of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Picoides borealis.Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 20 (March 1987): 77-88.

Ligon, J. David. “Behavior and Breeding Biology of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.” The Auk 87 (April 1970): 255-78.

Miller, Mark P., et al. “Changes in genetic diversity and differentiation in Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Dryobates borealis) over the past century.” Ecology and Evolution 9 (May 2019): 5420-32.

Rudolph, D. Craig, Howard Kyle, and Richard N. Conner. “Red-cockaded Woodpeckers vs Rat Snakes: The Effectiveness of the Resin Barrier.” Wilson Bulletin 102 (March 1990): 14-22.

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