WatchList Species Account for Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis)

Qualifies for the list as a Red List Species


Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Photo: Greg Lavaty

Endemic to the southeastern and south-central U.S., the Red-cockaded Woodpecker excavates its nest cavity only in pines at least 70 years old and affected with red heart disease. Since the rotation time for the commercial harvest of pines falls far short of that, the distribution of this woodpecker has become more and more limited to lands specifically managed for its survival.


Its favored habitat, long-leaf pine savanna, now covers only about 3% of its original extent. Where savanna once grew, the lands have been planted to plantations of loblolly and slash pine, commercially more profitable but much less suitable for the birds. Of its estimated current population of 5,000, some 40% are on National Forests, 20% on Department of Defense lands, 20% on private lands, 5% on National Wildlife Refuges, and the rest on other federl agency lands including the National Park Service and the Department of Energy.


With its listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and the subsequent development of a recovery plan, land managers have taken aggressive measures to stabilize and increase populations of the woodpecker on public lands. Working with biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists on Forest Service and Department of Defense lands have become experts in the business of managing habitat to benefit the woodpecker. In partnership with timber companies, some private lands have been set aside for the bird.


The prime management tool for this species is fire. Longleaf pine savanna would not exist unless it burns from time to time. Fire keeps the habitat open by eliminating invading hardwoods and is in fact needed in order for longleaf pine cones to germinate. Periodic fires once occurred through natural causes but now are applied by land managers to mimic this natural process. Programs at the most successful sites for the bird burn thousands of acres each year, generally on about a three-year cycle, under carefully controlled conditions. Where fuel build-up has become too great and fire brings unacceptable risks, land managers use mechanical means to thin midstory plants. Biologists augment woodpecker nesting success by installing artificial nest cavities; they also translocate birds from areas with high production to areas with the right habitat to establish new colonies.


Management has generally been quite successful, and the numbers of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker have increased at many sites. If this species gets what it needs, it prospers.