A Family of Red-Cockaded
Woodpeckers Makes a Home in a Mature Longleaf Pine Tree
(bolded words in text indicate key words
While most woodpeckers make their homes in dead trees where the
wood is rotten and soft, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only
bird in North America that makes its cavities in living pine trees.
In the southeastern United States, the longleaf pine was a favorite
tree for the red-cockaded woodpecker to make its home.
The relationship of the red-cockaded woodpecker
to the southern pine forest is one of specialization.
This woodpecker is very fickle, occupying a very specialized habitat
niche. All of the other woodpeckers in the southeast
construct their cavities in
snags, while only the red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home in
a living pine tree.
Historically, the red-cockaded woodpecker's range extended west
to Texas, north to New Jersey and inland to Missouri, Kentucky,
and Tennessee. In the southeastern United States, the longleaf pine
is a preferred tree to make cavities. However, unlike the outer
few inches of soft, sapwood,
the majority of the inner portion of older longleaf pine trees is
made up of very dense wood called heartwood.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers purposely seek out longleaf pines that
suffer from a fungus called
red-heart disease- a fungus
which causes the inner heartwood of the pine to rot and become soft
enough to construct a cavity. In longleaf pine, trees do not begin
to suffer from red-heart fungus until their age averages 80 - 120
years old. Once a suitable, mature tree is found, it generally takes
a red-cockaded woodpecker 1-3 years to construct a cavity. Generally
these birds will excavate groups of cavity trees in an area (called
During the American Revolution, patriots from the south often wore
jaunty red feathers or cockades in their caps to show their defiance.
The familiar lines from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" - "stuck
a feather in his cap" recall this practice. The male red-cockaded
woodpeckers have a small patch of red feathers on the sides of their
heads that are visible only when they are angry or courting.
In addition to one breeding pair of birds per cluster, male helper
birds from the previous nesting season help incubate
the eggs and raise the young of the next generation. Frequent fires
maintain an open and park-like forest preferred by the woodpeckers.
These open conditions are very favorable for the production of beetles,
ants, roaches, caterpillars, wood-boring insects and spiders (all
desired foraging material of
Rat snakes are very agile tree climbers and the primary predators
of red-cockaded woodpeckers. As a defensive
behavior, the woodpecker chips small holes (called resin
wells) into the bark of the cavity tree. These resin
wells cause gum to ooze down the face of the tree. When the scales
of the snake come into contact with this gum,
the snake generally retreats back down the tree.
From the late 1800's to the mid 1900's the red-cockaded woodpecker
rapidly declined as it's habitat was destroyed because of logging,
agriculture and other land use changes. Because much of the longleaf
pine ecosystem has been destroyed, the red-cockaded woodpecker has
few areas to make its home. In fact, only about 1% of suitable habitat
for the woodpecker is found throughout its former range. In 1970,
the species was listed as "endangered"--
which means it is in great danger of becoming extinct throughout
all or a portion of its range.
The red-cockaded woodpecker once shared its pine forest habitat
with the (now extinct) ivory-billed
woodpecker. Other birds like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet
are also extinct. However, there is still hope for the red-cockaded
woodpecker. Under the guidance of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, some populations are stable
Key Words and Concepts (click
on for glossary definition): construct,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.