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Adult red-cockaded woodpecker at nest cavity. Photo by Phillip Jordan. Image may be subject to copyright.
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Picoides borealis (Vieillot, 1809)

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Federal Protection: Listed Endangered

State Protection: Endangered

Global Rank: G3

State Rank: S2

Element Locations Tracked in Biotics: Yes

SWAP High Priority Species (SGCN): Yes

Element Occurrences (EOs) in Georgia: 76

Habitat Summary for element in Georgia: Open pine woods; pine savannas


Description

The red-cockaded woodpecker has a black back with broken white horizontal stripes ("ladder-back" pattern). The head is black except for a large white cheek patch on each side. The chest is dull white with small black spots. Total length is about 20 cm (8 in). Adult males have a tiny patch of red feathers (cockade) behind the eye, but the cockade is not displayed unless the bird is excited. The juvenile male has a red spot on top of his head. With a little practice, the red-cockaded woodpecker can easily be distinguished from the seven more common species of woodpeckers found in Georgia.

Similar Species

Both the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) and hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) are similar to the red-cockaded woodpecker in size and coloration, but these two species have a large vertical white patch on their backs rather than the black and white horizontal stripes of the red-cockaded. The downy and hairy woodpeckers also have broad black stripes on their face from the eye to the back of the head. Male downy and hairy woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of their heads. Juvenile male downy and hairy woodpeckers have a red patch that extends from the forehead to the front portion of the crown. Juvenile red-cockaded woodpeckers also have a red patch on the forehead, but it is smaller and does not extend as far back as the crown. The adult yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) also looks similar to the red-cockaded with alternating light and dark horizontal barring on the back, but this barring tends to be less distinct than that of the red-cockaded and often the lighter bars are brownish in color. Adult sapsuckers have a thick dark line extending from the eye to the back of the head and then down to the shoulder. The adult female sapsucker has a red cap and the male has a red cap and red throat patch.

 

Habitat

This small woodpecker needs large expanses of mature, open pine forest, particularly longleaf, slash, or loblolly pine. Nest and roost cavities are excavated only in old living pines, and the process may take several years to complete. Trees selected for cavities are usually infected with red heart fungus, which softens the heartwood, making excavation easier. The habitat that probably supported the largest populations historically was the fire-maintained longleaf pine forest of the Coastal Plain.

Diet

Ants, wood roaches, wood-boring beetles, and other insects; spiders, millipedes, and other invertebrates found on and within pine bark; occasionally corn earworms, fruits, and seeds.

Life History

Unlike other woodpeckers that excavate cavities almost entirely in dead wood, red-cockaded woodpeckers make their roosting and nesting cavities almost exclusively in living pine trees 60-80 years old and older. Cavity trees are usually infected with red-heart fungus, which softens the heartwood and facilitates vertical chamber excavation. Still, it can take several years for a bird to complete a cavity because the entrance tunnel must extend through living sapwood. The birds also excavate characteristic resin wells around the cavity entrance. These wells drip sticky resin onto the surface of the tree, which helps exclude tree-climbing rat snakes. These snakes are major predators of tree cavity inhabitants, especially nesting birds. Many other species of wildlife also make use of red-cockaded woodpecker cavities. Cavity klepto-parasitism, in which red-cockaded woodpecker cavities are usurped by other species, is a significant problem in some populations. Other woodpeckers such as red-headed (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus), as well as songbirds and flying squirrels are the chief culprits. Additionally, pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) often enlarge red-cockaded woodpecker cavities, making them suitable for species such as raccoons, wood ducks, and screech owls, but rendering them useless for red-cockaded woodpeckers. A cooperative breeder, the red-cockaded lives in family groups that typically consist of an adult breeding pair and 1-3 helpers that are normally male offspring from previous years. The group roosts in a cluster of cavity trees and forages together up to 0.8 km (0.5 mi) from the cluster. Most food is found beneath pine bark. In the spring, the breeding female lays 2-5 eggs in the tree cavity of the breeding male. Incubation takes 10-11 days and both adults and helpers participate. This is one of the shortest incubation periods documented for a woodpecker species. All members of the group assist in caring for the young, which fledge in 26-29 days, but often remain partially dependent on the parents for several more months. Juvenile females usually disperse from the cluster site during their first fall or winter to look for single males with territories. Some of the male offspring remain as helpers, and some disperse in an attempt to establish new territories. Each family group requires 24-240 ha (60-600 acres) of habitat depending on the quality.

Survey Recommendations

Cavity tree occupation can be determined by the freshness of resin wells and by observing the presence of roosting birds in late afternoon or early morning. Conduct counts of known family groups at active nest sites from April-May. Nesting success, survivorship, and productivity can be monitored at some sites as an index to overall population health. Peeper cameras can be used to view nest contents and determine the number of eggs or young present. Large areas of potential habitat can be surveyed by walking transects on a north-south line to view all potential cavity trees for signs of occupation and to listen for calls. Detailed survey recommendations may be found in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. https://www.fws.gov/rcwrecovery/recovery_plan.html

Range

Historically this bird was common in mature pine forests throughout the southeastern U.S. from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to Florida and the Atlantic Coast and north to Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey. The current range is much reduced and fragmented due to loss of habitat. The northern and western edges of its range have contracted and today the largest populations are found mostly on large expanses of public lands where management objectives have not included maximum timber production. Historically, this species probably occurred throughout Georgia where suitable open, mature pine forests were found, except in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Georgia, significant populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers occur on Ft. Stewart, Ft. Benning, Oconee National Forest/ Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Okefenokee NWR, and plantations in the Red Hills near Thomasville where red-cockaded woodpecker habitat maintenance had been incidental to land management for quail hunting and aesthetics. Translocation efforts have re-established several family groups on Fort Gordon, Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center, and Silver Lake, Moody Forest, and River Creek WMAs. A few scattered groups may remain elsewhere on private land.

Threats

Destruction and fragmentation of mature, open pine forest habitat has been the greatest threat to the red-cockaded woodpecker. The species has been virtually eliminated from most private land by incompatible management practices, such as fire-suppression, clearing, agriculture, urbanization, and short-rotation pine silviculture. Range-wide, scattered red-cockaded woodpecker groups are in peril because of habitat degradation and the detrimental demographic effects of isolation. Juveniles dispersing from isolated clusters very rarely encounter suitable habitat, much less others of their kind; and once a breeding female dies, there is little chance of a replacement immigrating to the group.

Georgia Conservation Status

Georgia is home to several large red-cockaded woodpecker populations, with the largest on Fort Stewart and Fort Benning military installations.  Other populations at Fort Gordon, Okefenokee NWR, Piedmont NWR, Oconee NF, Silver Lake WMA, Moody Forest WMA, River Creek WMA, and the Jones Ecological Research Center continue to grow through the installation of recruitment clusters, habitat improvements, and translocation. In 1998 there were approximately 665 family groups on public land in Georgia. By 2002 the number had grown to 794 groups and by 2010 had risen to an estimated 872 groups, a result of continuing growth in most managed populations. In 2017, there were approximately 1062 red-cockaded woodpecker groups on state or federal land in Georgia. The Red Hills population near Thomasville, which is the largest found on private land in the world, is holding steady at approximately 180 groups due to a long-term commitment to bobwhite quail management, and through the implementation of the Safe Harbor program.

Conservation Management Recommendations

Most red-cockaded woodpecker populations on public land are being intensively managed in an attempt to reach population recovery goals. The use of artificial cavities and translocation has proven to be a valuable management technique for expanding populations. Banding nestlings each spring allows biologists to monitor reproduction and dispersal and to determine group composition across a population. Critically important habitat management recommendations include maintaining regular prescribed fire, reducing hardwood midstory, thinning timber to a lower basal area (40 - 70 ft2/ac), and longer pine timber rotations resulting in older trees. Management agreements and habitat conservation plans (HCPs) are being used to conserve red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands; Georgia has a statewide HCP for small, demographically isolated groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers that allows private landowners to "incidentally take" isolated individuals after a replacement group is formed at a site where the birds can contribute to a recovery or support population that should remain viable permanently. This benefits landowners by removing costly recommended management restrictions intended to avoid violation of the Endangered Species Act, and it benefits the overall red-cockaded woodpecker population by building viable populations. An attempt is made to translocate all impacted birds, so actual "take" should be very small or non-existent. The HCP also includes provisions for "Safe Harbor" agreements. Participating landowners who agree to maintain suitable habitat are protected from additional management responsibilities should the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers on their land increase above the baseline level.

References

Baker, W. W. 1981. The distribution, status and future of the red-cockaded woodpecker in Georgia. Pages 82-87 in R. R. Odom and J. W. Guthrie, eds. Proceedings of the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Symposium. Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Technical Bulletin WL 5.

Hooper, R. G., A. F. Robinson, Jr., and J. A. Jackson. 1980. The red-cockaded woodpecker: notes on life history and management. U. S. Forest Service General Report SA-GR 9. 8pp.

Jackson, J. A. 1978. Analysis of the distribution and population status of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Pages 101-111 in R. R. Odom and L. Landers, eds. Proceedings of the Rare and Endangered Wildlife Symposium. Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Technical Bulletin WL 4.

Jackson, J. A. 1994. Red-cockaded woodpecker. In A. Poole, and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, no. 85. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA and American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, DC.

Kulhavy, D. L., R. G. Hooper, and R. Costa, editors. 1995. Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Recovery, Ecology, and Management. Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX. 552pp.

Lennartz, M. R., and D. G. Heckel. 1987. Population dynamics of a red-cockaded woodpecker population in Georgia Piedmont loblolly pine habitat. Pages 48-55 in R. R. Odom, K. A. Riddleberger, and J. C. Ozier, eds. Proceeding of the Third Southeastern Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Symposium. Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Ligon, J. D. 1970. Behavior and breeding biology of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Auk 87:255-278.

McFarlane, R. W. 1992. A Stillness in the Pines: The Ecology of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. W. W. Norton, New York, NY. 270pp.

Ozier, J. C. 1999. Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Pp. 54–55 in T. W. Johnson, J. C. Ozier, J. L. Bohannon, J. B. Jensen, and C. Skelton, eds., Protected Animals of Georgia. Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, Nongame Wildlife–Natural Heritage Section, Social Circle.

Ozier, J. C., W. W. Baker, and P. B. Spivey. 2003. Status and management of the red-cockaded woodpecker in Georgia: emphasis on private lands. Pp. 238-244 in R. Costa and S. J. Daniels, eds., Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Road to Recovery. Hancock House Publishers, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada and Blaine, WA.

Ozier, J. C. 2010. Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Pp. 226–227 in T. M. Schneider, G. Beaton, T. S. Keyes, and N. A. Klaus, eds. The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Thompson, R. L., editor. 1971. The Ecology and Management of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. U. S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC., and Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, FL. 188pp.

Wood, D. A., editor. 1983. Proceedings of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Symposium II. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Tallahassee. 112pp.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA. 88pp.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Recovery Plan for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis): second revision. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, Atlanta, GA. 316pp.

Authors of Account

James C. Ozier, Todd M. Schneider, Joe Burnam

Date Compiled or Updated

J. Ozier-Original Account: 1999

J. Ozier-Breeding Bird Atlas species account: 2010

T. Schneider (modified and edited text): July 2010

M. Camp, October 2010: updated status and ranks, added pictures

J. Burnam and T. Schneider (updated and modified text): 7 November 2019

Red-cockaded with food for nestlings. Photo by Todd Engstrom. Image may be subject to copyright.
Burning around red-cockaded cavity tree (note white band marking tree). Photo by Joe Burnam, DNR, Wildlife Resources Division
Wildlife Technician Zach Henshaw installing cavity insert (nestbox). Photo by Joe Burnam, DNR, Wildlife Resources Division.
Nestling red-cockaded woodpeckers that have been banded. Photo by Joe Burnam, DNR, Wildlife Resources Division.