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Red Cockaded Woodpeckers

by James B. “Jim” Kea
Area Extension Forestry Agent – now retired
Thursday, February 9th, 2006

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is also known as the “spotted owl of the east coast”. It is often confused with the larger piliated woodpecker or its look-a-likes, downy and hairy woodpeckers. This woodpecker is about 3-5 inches long, predominately grey and white with a red bar behind the eye. It rose to fame in the mid seventies as a major natural control of the southern pine beetle.

It is unique in that it builds its cavity nest only in live pine trees. Pine trees used for cavities, roosting or foraging (feeding) are normally old- growth (70+ for loblolly and 90+ for longleaf pine) and in stands with very little under growth (less than 5 feet tall). Ideal stands normally have a history of frequent, low intensity burning. Cavities are normally found facing the southeast, about 15-20 feet off the ground and surrounded by a pitch flow. This pitch flow is created and maintained by the woodpecker as it pecks the bark off the tree and drills “pitch wells” in the wood. From a distance it is shinny grey. The pitch flow serves to keep snakes and raccoons from robbing the nest. It may actually attract a small amount of food.

The woodpeckers eat pine bark beetles, wood borers, ants, spiders, roaches, centipedes, moths and caterpillars. Although early studies observed foraging in agricultural fields, most foraging is done on tree trunks. They will also eat small fruit and seed as well as feed on suet.

The woodpeckers live in family groups known as clans. These clans consist of the breeding pair plus helpers who gather food for the young. Each clan uses and defends an aggregate of cavity trees referred to as a nesting site. Each nesting site usually contains 1-9 trees containing 1-8 cavities in each tree. These trees are seldom more than 1300 feet apart. Each clan needs at least 5000 pines 10 inches or larger in diameter surrounding the nesting site. Sixty to five hundred acres may be required to provide enough trees.

Logging should not occur in the nesting site plus a 200 foot buffer surrounding it. The minimum number of pine trees for foraging have to be maintained adjacent to the nesting site. Careful planning and the cooperation of adjacent landowners will allow the woodpeckers to thrive and landowners to cut timber. Many timber buyers, consultants and foresters are familiar with the cavity trees and respect the stiff fines and jail time associated with disturbing this endangered species. Several years of scientific study and common sense have resulted in a management strategy that can allow woodpeckers and logging. It still takes landowners willing to work within these guidelines to make this common sense approach work. If you suspect you have red-cockaded woodpeckers on your property please contact our office or the county ranger. Federal penalties include a $50,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison. Substantial rewards have also been given to whistle blowers.


Revised 2/16/2006.

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