The red-cockaded woodpecker is a member of the family Picidae. Similar to other members of the woodpecker family, this small bird has a chisel-like beak used for drilling holes and strong claws that enable it to move along the side of a tree. Male and female red-cockaded woodpeckers look alike, with the exception of the characteristic feature for which they are named: males have a red cockade, a streak of red feathers behind the eye. However, this feature is small and difficult to see. Both males and females have black heads with white cheek patches, and their backs are barred with black and white. Their underside is white, and they have black spots on their flanks.
Habitat and Biology
The range of the red-cockaded woodpecker extends from southeastern Oklahoma and Maryland to the Gulf coast and central Florida. It is a permanent resident of mature pine forests, with an age of 60 years or greater, that lack a hardwood understory, such as those maintained by sporadic wildfires. Many of the woodpeckers in South Carolina reside in Francis Marion National Forest; others inhabit the Sea Islands and coastal regions of South Carolina. Historically, the red-cockaded woodpecker may have lived in the are that has become the ACE Basin. However, the species has not been documented in the ACE.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are the only woodpeckers to dig a nest cavity in a living tree. Suitable trees for cavity building typically have been infected with red heart disease, a fungal infection that causes the core of the tree to rot, which eases digging for the woodpeckers. Cavity building may last an entire year or more. The birds then proceed to dig smaller holes around the nest cavity. Tree sap oozes out of the holes and presumably serves as a deterrent for potential predators such as raccoons and rat snakes.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups, called clans, of four to six individuals: the male and female and several helper birds, usually the male offspring. Helpers assist in incubating eggs, feeding the young, and digging tree cavities. Each member of the clan has its own roost cavity. Two to four white eggs are laid in spring, from late April to mid-May. Young hatch in 10-12 days and spend a little over 3 weeks in the nest. These woodpeckers feed on larvae of wood-boring insects, grubs, beetles, spiders, and other arthropods. Adults occasionally eat berries of wax myrtle, blueberry, poison ivy, and sweet bay.
The red-cockaded woodpecker was listed as an endangered species throughout its range in 1970 and continues to be considered endangered in most states where it occurs, including South Carolina. The primary factor leading to its decline is habitat loss. Because red-cockaded woodpeckers are so specialized with respect to habitat requirements, they are extremely vulnerable to land-use changes. Current forestry practices do not usually allow pine trees to attain the age necessary for woodpecker habitat. Management practices should include the use of controlled fires in order to provide suitable habitat by destroying the hardwoods but not the pines. Currently, there are no colonies documented in the ACE Basin.
Bull, J. L. and J. Farrand, Jr. 1995. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Eastern Region. The Audubon Society field guide series. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, NY.
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Murphy, S. H. and G. Barnette (eds.). South Carolina's endangered species portfolio. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Diversity Section, Columbia, SC.
National Geographic Society. 1987. Field guide to the birds of North America. Second edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC.
Sprunt, A., Jr. and E. B. Chamberlain. 1970. South Carolina bird life. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.