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What is a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker?

By Christina Edwards
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Known scientifically as Picoides borealis, the red-cockaded woodpecker is a species of woodpecker from the Picoides genus. These types of birds are generally found in North America, and they are known for pecking holes in trees and other wooden structures to feed on insects. This is a territorial, non-migratory bird that often stays in the same area all year round. Due to deforestation and other problems, however, this species of bird is considered endangered.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is considered to be one of the larger species of woodpeckers. On average they are roughly 8.5 to 9 inches long (21.6 to 23 cm) long, with a wingspan of about 14 inches (35.6 centimeters). They are comparable in size to a cardinal.

This bird is predominately black and white. The top of the head is black and it has black patches around the neck. Its cheeks are typically white, and the back is covered in horizontal white and black stripes.

It is commonly believed that the red-cockaded woodpecker got its nickname during the 17th century. During this time, decorative hat ribbons were referred to as cockades. The males of this species have a small red stripe behind their eyes that resembles the hat decoration. This distinguishing mark, however, is typically only seen during mating season or when he is defending his territory.

Although the red-cockaded woodpecker eats some fruits and seeds, it primarily eats insects, such as ants, beetles, and spiders. This bird, like other woodpeckers, will peck holes in the trees searching for its prey, including eggs, larvae, and adult insects. The females of this species are usually found pecking on the lower part of the tree, while the males can be found higher up on the trunk and branches. One theory behind this odd behavior is that the designated areas reduce competition when food is in short supply.

These birds are thought to be the only woodpeckers that peck on live trees. They can be found primarily in pine forests, particularly forests with an abundance of long leaf pine trees, because of their resistance to fire. Older live trees with a fungus known as red heart disease are typically one of the only trees in which the red-cockaded woodpecker will create nesting cavities. This type of fungus affects the heartwood of trees that are often no younger than 70 years old, making the middle of the tree softer and easier to bore into.

Known as primary cavity nesters, these birds are an important part of the ecosystem. Red-cockaded woodpeckers will often take as long as six years to peck out a hole in a tree in which to nest. Although they will stay in the same area for years, if these cavities are abandoned by the birds, other animals will take up permanent or temporary residence. These animals are known as secondary cavity nesters, and can include other birds, frogs, squirrels, or snakes, to name a few.

Nesting areas of red-cockaded woodpeckers are called clusters, and there is often a small group of these birds living together. These groups are typically made up of a mating pair and up to four or five of their older male offspring, with each bird having its own cavity. These woodpeckers have what is called a cooperative breeding system, meaning that the offspring that stay behind help incubate the pair's eggs and help take care of the young.

In April, the female of this species will usually lay an average of four eggs, which are white. These eggs are laid in the male's nesting cavity, and there is a short incubation period of roughly 11 days. After they hatch, the babies have no feathers and their eyes are still closed, so they need a lot of help from others in the family. Roughly six months later, most of them will leave the nest.

The red-cockaded woodpecker used to be an abundant species in many parts of North America, primarily the United States. Due to deforestation and urbanization, however, the population of this species is now reduced to a fraction of what it used to be. In 1970, the red-cockaded woodpecker was recognized as an endangered species. Today, most of these birds can be found in state and national forests scattered throughout the southeastern part of the United States. Although their numbers are still quite low, they are slowly beginning to rise, due to the efforts trying to save the birds.

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