Red-cockaded woodpecker -- 红顶啄木鸟 (Picoides borealis)

Red-cockaded woodpecker with insect prey in beak
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Red-cockaded woodpecker fact file

Red-cockaded woodpecker description

GenusPicoides (1)

The red-cockaded woodpecker may not be the most striking woodpecker in appearance, but it is possibly the most studied woodpecker species in the world (4), due to its dependence on a very particular habitat type. This medium-sized bird can be easily distinguished from other woodpeckers within its range by the white cheeks, which contrast sharply with a black crown (5). The back and wings are also black, spotted with white, resulting in the plumage appearing dark grey from a distance, and the underparts typically look dirty white (5). The only colour in its monochromatic plumage is a tiny red tuft above the eyes of the male, although this can rarely be seen (5). It is after this minute patch of feathers that the bird is named, as it was thought to resemble a cockade (a rosette or knot of ribbons worn on a hat) (5). The red-cockaded woodpecker has a bill like that of other woodpeckers, wedge-shaped and with a chisel-like tip, providing an efficient tool with which to excavate cavities in tree trunks (5). Also typical of all woodpeckers is its tail, which has stiff feathers that enable the tail to be used as a prop when the bird is pecking at a tree (6).

Length: 22 cm (2)

Red-cockaded woodpecker biology

The life of a red-cockaded woodpecker is rather different to that of other North American woodpeckers; its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a social bird that lives in family groups of two to five individuals (4) (7). The red-cockaded woodpeckers in each family group roost and nest together (5), in cavities that have been excavated in ancient pines, often over 100 years old (2). Eggs are laid within a cavity from late April to early June (2), and all members of the family group may help in raising the chicks (4) (7).

The family group sometimes also searches for food together (5). When feeding, the red-cockaded woodpecker is an active bird, moving up and down trunks, along branches, and changing trees frequently, showing a preference for larger trees (5). It uses its chisel-like bill to pry off pieces of bark to search for insects beneath, leaving a trail of bark shards on the forest floor. Occasionally, this woodpecker may descend to the forest floor, where it progresses in short hops (5).


Red-cockaded woodpecker range

Once found throughout southeast USA (1), the red-cockaded woodpecker’s range is now much reduced, and covers an area that extends from Oklahoma east to Virginia, and south to Florida and Texas (7). Within this area, the species now occurs as approximately 30 isolated populations (2).


Red-cockaded woodpecker habitat

The red-cockaded woodpecker is found only in mature pine forests (8), where fires occur every one to five years (7). This frequency of fires results in a forest that is rather open and has little understorey (8).


Red-cockaded woodpecker status

The red-cockaded woodpecker is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed as Endangered on the Endangered Species Act (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Red-cockaded woodpecker threats

Native to the pine forests of the southeast USA, the red-cockaded woodpecker is a poignant indicator of the status of this unique ecosystem; the decline in woodpecker populations reflects the devastating loss of this pine habitat (7). Man has altered this ecosystem, making areas unsuitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker, and leaving populations fragmented (2) (4).

Unfortunately, its Endangered status listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had some unintended negative impacts on this species. Some owners of land containing suitable habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker are concerned for the regulations that would be imposed on the use of their land if it was discovered to harbour populations of an endangered species. As a result, landowners attempt to make their land unattractive to the woodpecker, by removing old pines, and suppressing fires in order to let the understorey thrive (8). Elsewhere too, as human populations grow and occupy new areas, the pressure to prevent natural occurring forest fires increases (2).


Red-cockaded woodpecker conservation

The red-cockaded woodpecker is listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which means that it is illegal to hunt, harm, kill, or capture this species (3). This means it is also unlawful to modify or degrade suitable habitat as this would harm the woodpecker, by impairing its ability to feed or breed (3). Whilst a very well intended action, the listing as Endangered, as mentioned above, has actually had some negative impacts (8). However, there are many other conservation actions in place for this well-studied species. Where possible, regular burning and understorey clearance takes place in pine forests, creating a habitat that is suitable for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Elsewhere, some private landowners are offered financial incentives to look after their land in a way that will be attractive to this species (2).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

To learn about a program which aims to conserve the red-cockaded woodpecker and the ecosystem upon which it depends see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:


  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2008)
  2. Birdlife International (September, 2009)
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (September, 2009)
  4. Jackson, J.A. (1994) Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  5. Dunne, P. (2006) Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  6. Conner, R.N., Rudolph, D.C. and Walters, J.R. (2001) The Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Surviving in a Fire-Maintained Ecosystem. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
  7. Wells, J.V. (2007) Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Van Dyke, F. (2003) Conservation Biology: Foundations, Concepts, Applications. McGraw-Hill, London.

Image credit

Red-cockaded woodpecker with insect prey in beak  
Red-cockaded woodpecker with insect prey in beak

© Martjan Lammertink

Martjan Lammertink


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