Red-Cockaded Woodpecker



Common Name
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
Picoides borealis


Medium sized bird; black and white barring on back; white cheek patches; white underparts with black spots; solid black top of the head (cap) and back of neck (nape); adult male has tiny red tuft behind eye near the ear, although not usually visible
7.25 – 9 in. (18.41 – 22.86 cm) long 
Ecological Role
  • The red-cockaded woodpecker uses live pines for nesting and roosting. These live pines are usually 80 or more years old and often infected with a heart rot fungus, Fomes pini, making cavity excavation easier. Pitch wells, or holes, pecked near the cavity entrance allow sap to flow down the tree. This is thought to discourage potential predators like snakes from climbing the tree. Small mammals and other birds such as chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, and several other woodpecker species, including the downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpecker use these cavities. Insects such as wasps and bees will also use these cavities. Cooper’s hawks, rat snakes, sharp-shinned hawks, and southern flying squirrels prey upon eggs and nestlings.
  • Pine species that were utilized by the red-cockaded woodpeckers in Kentucky include shortleaf, pitch, and Virginia. Fire plays an important part in maintaining red-cockaded woodpecker habitat by reducing competition from hardwoods while encouraging the growth of pine trees.
Fun Facts
  • The flash of red behind the eye resembles a badge, or cockade, and gives this bird the name red-cockaded woodpecker. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups called clans. These groups consist of 3 – 9 birds, a breeding pair, their offspring, and males, called helpers, from previous breeding seasons. This group cooperates by assisting with territory defense, incubation, and feeding of the young. Female offspring usually leave to find a group of solitary males. The family group requires several cavity or roosting trees in their area, these trees are referred to as a cluster. The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker to excavate a cavity in living pine trees. A new cavity may take up to three years to be fully excavated. The tail is used as a prop, or brace, and supports the weight of the woodpecker while hammering into the tree. Woodpeckers can hammer the wood more than 100 times a minute. Red-cockaded woodpeckers feed by prying off bark and eating insects they find instead of drilling holes in trees like other woodpeckers.
  • Loss of mature pine forests due to farming, fire suppression allowing competing trees to crowd out pine trees, and timber harvest contributed to the decline of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The population in Kentucky declined so severely that the U.S. Forest Service began moving birds from other southern forests to the Daniel Boone National Forest in an attempt to supplement the native population. Protection efforts for these birds included monitoring of individual populations, protecting and managing for mature pine forest habitat, and research of red-cockaded woodpecker ecology. Unfortunately, the southern pine beetle destroyed thousands of acres of habitat in Kentucky, leading to the relocation of the few remaining red-cockaded woodpeckers to South Carolina.
Insects, such as ants, wood-boring larvae of beetles, caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, roach eggs, spiders, and termites; pine seeds; occasionally fruits; will search for insects under bark and along limbs of trees within foraging territory
Late March – July, producing one clutch of chicks; use cavities in live pine trees for nesting and roosting; nest usually made in roost tree of the breeding male; cavity dug by male, usually 30 – 40 ft. (9.144 – 12.19 m) above ground, with several feet of pitch wells above and below entrance; will use same nest annually until tree dies or sap dries up (see Ecological Role below) 
Male excavates, or hollows out, cavity and then tries to attract female by pecking on inside of tree; female will return pecks from outside if she accepts the location; pair usually mates for life
2 – 4 white oval eggs; usually sticky because of sap that is carried in on the breast of the sitting birds; male sits on nest during night, members of family group take turns sitting during the day; hatch in 10 – 12 days
Open mature pine forest located along ridges; trees must be alive and 70 years or older (see Ecological Role above)
Kentucky Distribution
No individuals are known tolive in Kentucky today; previous to 2001, occupied sites were known to occur only in the Daniel Boone National Forest – Laurel, McCreary, Pulaski, and Whitley counties in particular; because of widespread habitat destruction by the southern pine beetle, the few remaining red-cockaded woodpeckers were moved to South Carolina in 2001 by the U. S. Forest Service
Life Cycle
Life Span
Life Stage
Seasonal Changes
Red-cockaded woodpeckers maintain their territories throughout the year and do not migrate.
Federally Endangered (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1993)
Raspy “shrip”, or a higher-pitched, longer call 
All members of the family group help incubate and feed young (see Fun Facts); hatchlings leave nest cavity in about 26 days to forage for food on their own
What We Can Do
Protect and manage mature pine forests for red-cockaded woodpeckers. More than 200 acres of pine forest is needed to support the activities of one family group.
Diagnosis and Control
Interesting Facts
Contributed By