Sept/Oct 2012For Wildlife Watchers: Red-cockaded Woodpeckerby Rob Simbeck, photograph by Ted Borg

The red-cockaded woodpecker requires mature pine forest and excavates cavities primarily in mature trees.

Humans are adaptable. We live in caves in Capadoccia and mansions in Malibu, in jungles and tundras, deserts and bayous. We eat filet mignon and fried grasshoppers, succotash and squid.

Most creatures are not nearly so flexible. Many are finely tuned specialists exploiting very specific niches. Take the red-cockaded woodpecker. It requires mature pine forest - preferably longleaf pine - and excavates cavities primarily in mature trees old enough to have developed red heart disease, a fungus that helps soften the heartwood. It also feeds on and around those trees and uses them for defense, drilling holes in the bark to release sap that discourages snakes attempting to climb toward a meal of eggs or hatchlings. Even the undergrowth is important, since a good cover of young grasses is vital. Burgeoning hardwoods amid the pines can make forests uninhabitable for the RCW.

It is narrowcasting of the highest order. Still, these are birds that once flourished, for when Europeans arrived there was an expanse of ninety million acres tailor made for them. Open pine forests extended south from New Jersey to Texas and west from Florida to Missouri. Regular fires, sparked by lightning and set by Native Americans seeking to maximize habitat for hunting, kept the underbrush down.

Gradually, our need for crops, rangeland and lumber changed the landscape, until today only about 1 percent of the habitat suitable for red-cockaded woodpeckers remains standing, and maybe 1 percent of their peak population is still with us - an estimate in the year 2000 put the number at just 15,000. This was one of the first species to be listed as endangered in 1970, when it was estimated that there were fewer than 10,000.

The basic social unit of these woodpeckers is the "group," defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as "a breeding pair with one or more helpers [young males], a breeding pair without helpers, or a solitary male," and it is estimated that there are more than 400 such groups on private lands in South Carolina, more than 150 on state lands, and more than 650 "potential breeding groups," which include at least a male and a female, on federal lands. Collectively, those figures represent an increase of 30 percent in the state's red-cockaded woodpecker population in the past two decades.

While several agencies are working to restore the bird's numbers, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Paige Koon, coordinator for the agency's RCW recovery project, is quick to credit private landowners for practices that gave the state a good starting point.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Picoides borealis "northern woodpecker"

Description: A slender, long-tailed, small-billed woodpecker with a black and white barred back, black cap and nape, and white cheek patches.

Reproduction: "Helpers," usually non-mating males, assist a mating pair in incubating three to four eggs and raising young.

Viewing Tips: Habitat specialists, they can best be seen in the handful of open pine forests where they remain. In South Carolina, Francis Marion National Forest and Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge both have growing populations.

"One of the reasons we have so many woodpeckers on private lands in South Carolina, in comparison with other states," she says, "is because of property owners who manage large tracts for quail hunting and other recreational uses."

That base was important during a turning point that came in the form of a natural disaster. Two biologists, David Allen, now coastal region wildlife diversity supervisor for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and Carole Copeyon, now with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Pennsylvania, were fine-tuning techniques in the 1980s to excavate artificial cavities, since it can take the RCW months or even years to do so. When Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 monster, hit the South Carolina coast in 1989, the devastation it wreaked on habitat of all kinds pushed their work into high gear. Allen and Copeyon led crews that excavated holes for months, giving a big jump-start to RCW recovery efforts.

In 1998, the DNR became only the second agency in the country to hold a statewide permit for the USFWS's Safe Harbor program, which enrolls private landowners and encourages and supports land management benefiting red-cockaded woodpeckers and other species found in the open pine forest niche. It does so in part by easing certain Endangered Species Act restrictions associated with having RCW groups on their properties. Currently, some 140 landowners with properties ranging from less than one hundred to tens of thousands of acres are enrolled.

"In 2010," says Koon, who oversees and assists activities by private landowners enrolled in the program, "our survey showed that there's been an increase of forty-eight groups over what we started with on our Safe Harbor properties, and there have been increases in the number of groups on five of the six DNR properties as well."

RCWs bear a resemblance to some of their more numerous cousins. Like the downy and hairy woodpeckers, the red-cockaded has a barred black-and-white back. It is slender, long-tailed and short-billed, with a black cap like that of a chickadee and stripes that encircle large white cheek patches. A small red streak called a cockade, located behind the eye on each side of the black cap, is present on the males, but is visible, if at all, only when the bird is agitated. About as big as a cardinal and weighing just an ounce and a half, the RCW feeds on a variety of wood-boring insects, as well as spiders, ants, beetles, cockroaches and caterpillars found on pine trees, supplementing that protein-heavy diet with occasional fruit and berries. It seldom feeds on the ground.

This is the only woodpecker that excavates cavities exclusively in living trees; it prefers longleaf pine. Pairs, which inhabit territories of between one hundred and four hundred acres, may mate for several years in a row, with courtship beginning in March and nesting between April and June. The female lays three to four white eggs in the male's roost cavity, and group members watch and incubate them for ten to twelve days. Hatchlings remain in the cavity for twenty-six days and stay with the parents after fledging, with the males often becoming the next generation of helpers in their parents' group, and females generally leaving the group before the next breeding season in search of solitary males.

The RCW's cavities are important to many other species. They are used by other bird species, flying squirrels, bees and wasps, other insects, and even by raccoons if other woodpeckers have expanded them.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is an important part of its habitat niche, and the progress being made in bringing it back is encouraging. At its current recovery rate, it's estimated that it will take seventy years for the RCW to be taken off the endangered species list. Given our role in the history of this finely tuned creature, it's a long-term commitment that makes sense.

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