The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
18cm to 23cm
34cm to 41cm
40g to 56g
Male red-cockaded woodpeckers may have a tiny red splash of color on the side of their head, but this is difficult to spot in the field and is not always present. Apart from this, their plumage is entirely black and white, with a black crown and nape, a heavily barred black and white back and tail, and a black bar beneath a bold white cheek. The breast and belly are also white, and black spots mark the sides of the breast and the flanks.
In female red-cockaded woodpeckers, the small red facial patch is absent, and the sexes are otherwise alike and reliably cannot be told apart. Both have a short black bill, chestnut brown eyes, and gray legs and feet.
Juveniles have the same patterning as adults but are less glossy and their plumage has a sepia wash. Young males have a crimson patch on their crown, which is no longer evident when they reach maturity.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker in natural habitat
Noisy, chattering groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers are often the first sign that a cluster of nest cavities is nearby. A long ‘sklit’ note is heard as a warning alert, and a loud, buzzy ‘churt’ is used as a contact call between family members.
Insects, other invertebrates, and their larvae are the most important food source for red-cockaded woodpeckers, with ants forming up to 70 percent of their diet. Southern pine beetles and bark beetles are also frequently eaten. Prey is found by foraging on branches, with males tending to forage at higher altitudes than females. Red-cockaded woodpeckers use their bills to pick off sections of bark to access insect life below.
Some seeds and fruit may also be eaten, including pine seeds, wild cherry, pokeberry, magnolia, poison ivy, blueberry, and black gum.
Larvae, centipedes, and wood roaches are fed to young red-cockaded woodpeckers by both parents, as well as by male helper birds at their nest cluster.
Pine savannas, with longleaf and other southern pine species, are vital to the survival of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Mature forests at elevations ranging from sea level to 850 m are perfect habitats. In particular, they target trees that are infected by red heart fungus. The presence of this fungus weakens the inner wood of the tree, making it easier to excavate.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers have a fragmented distribution range and are currently found in scattered woodlands from Virginia in the north, Florida in the south, and Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in the west.
Today’s range is greatly contracted compared to the historical range of the species when it extended as far north as New Jersey and Maryland and as far inland as Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Florida and South Carolina have the highest numbers of red-cockaded woodpeckers on state lands, while private lands in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida also support further notable populations.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are rarely spotted, and with a population of only around 15,000 remaining across a very scattered geographical area, sightings are scarce. Today’s population represents only around 1 percent of the previous population when the species was widespread across Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee.
Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest is known for its sizable population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, and sightings are most regularly reported from the western part of the forest.
Blackwater River State Forest has introduced a program to promote the recovery of the local population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. They are particularly visible from April to July when nesting activity is at its peak.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are not resident in Canada, with the US states of Virginia and Kentucky forming the northernmost limits of their normal range. Even before the recent large-scale population declines of the 20th century, the species was not found as far north as Canada.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker on a pine trunk
The oldest recorded red-cockaded woodpecker, identified through banding programs, was 18 years old, although average life expectancy is thought to be significantly lower. Birds are able to breed for the first time in their first year, and one brood per year is raised.
Corn snakes and rat snakes are predators of nest cavities, although the defense tactic of letting fresh pine resin spill around nest openings does help to prevent unwanted visitors from gaining access. Eastern screech owls, American kestrels, and southern flying squirrels are other known predators.
As well as being protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, red-cockaded woodpeckers are identified under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. This additional level of protection is justified because of the serious threat to the future survival of the species because of extensive habitat loss.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers have already become locally extinct in a number of states, including Missouri, Maryland, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Kentucky.
Their official conservation status is Near Threatened, and some intensive species recovery plans have been introduced to safeguard their future. Since 1992, some reversal to the decline has begun to show as a result of forest management schemes.
Cavity excavation takes between 1 and 3 years, and due to this protracted carving process, the existing roost cavity of the male is chosen as the nest site. Small holes, or sap wells, are drilled around the nest opening, out of which pine resin oozes down the trunk and acts as a deterrent for predators.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders and live in family groups, with several cavity trees located in close proximity. These ‘clusters’ offer nesting spots for breeding pairs and roosting sites for nonbreeders and helpers within the group.
Conservation efforts include the creation of artificial nest chambers within existing clusters, as well as action to restrict existing nest cavities of red-cockaded woodpeckers’ from being enlarged or altered and then taken over by other species.
Eggs are usually laid in April, and one of the shortest avian incubation periods follows, with young hatching within 10 or 11 days. Both parents share incubation, with males taking a larger portion and always the overnight shift. Helper birds within the cluster will also frequently assist with incubation. Fledging takes place between 24 and 27 days, and the young remain associated with their parents for several months.
A typical red-cockaded woodpecker’s clutch consists of between 1 and 5 shiny white eggs, which measure 24 mm by 18 mm (0.9 in by 0.8 in).
Bonds between red-cockaded woodpeckers are monogamous and usually last for several breeding seasons. However, sometimes individuals may change mates from year to year.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker foraging in the tree
Although they are a territorial species, red-cockaded woodpeckers are also cooperative breeders, living in small groups with nonbreeding individuals helping to raise young. Group members are tolerated, and unite to chase off any intruders, using jabbing and posturing to reinforce their territory.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers roost in individual cavities hollowed out in the trunks of pines, but may also use chambers carved out by other species or natural hollows in trees. If no suitable roosting cavity is available, a sheltered spot under a tree limb may be chosen.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a nonmigratory species and remain in their cluster groups all year round, with little movement from their breeding grounds.
Today, red-cockaded woodpeckers are only found in eastern and southern regions of the United States, where their population is fragmented across scattered mature pine forests.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are attracted to large mature pines, in open, park-like woodlands and savannas. Fruit and berry trees also provide a welcome additional foraging ground, so yards planted with grapes, hackberries, elderberries, and bayberries may also bring these rare visitors to your garden.
Mature longleaf pine forests are vital to the survival of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Other important species include loblolly, slash, shortleaf, Virginia, pitch, and pond pines.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are unique among woodpeckers in that they excavate cavities in living trees rather than dead or dying ones. However, they frequently choose trees that are infected with a red heart fungus, making the heartwood softer to drill into, so it can be argued that the trees they use are already at risk.
The presence of woodpeckers can both cause damage and bring multiple benefits to a forest – Holes drilled into trees can weaken the trunk and cause disease and infestations to spread, but woodpeckers balance this by keeping insect populations under control and increasing biodiversity.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are occasional visitors to backyard feeders near their home territory, where they feed on suet.
Downy woodpeckers are noticeably smaller than red-cockaded woodpeckers, and have a much wider range, covering almost the entire United States and much of Canada.
Visually they are reasonably similar looking, although the red patch on the rear of a downy woodpecker’s head is more prominent than the small red spot on the side of a red-cockaded woodpecker’s head. Red-cockaded woodpeckers have speckled flanks and a pure white cheek, while in downy woodpeckers, the cheek features a bold black patch and their flanks are plain white.
Known as a keystone species, red-cockaded woodpeckers are vital to their local ecosystems. Their nest cavities offer valuable habitats for other species, including eastern bluebirds, flying squirrels, corn snakes, and barking tree frogs.
Their disused cavities can also be modified into larger spaces by northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers, which are then useful for even more species, including eastern screech owls, bats, and honeybees.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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