Red-cockaded Woodpecker a new addition to life list

10:15 am | November 14, 2011

It has been almost three years since I have been able to add a new species to my life list.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - The Red-cockaded Woodpecker (pictured above) received federal designation as an Endangered Species on Oct. 13, 1970. Today, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is found in 11 southeastern states. Thanks to intensive management of its mature pine forest habitat, the population of this woodpecker appears stable and perhaps even on the rise.

The last bird to add a notch to the list was the Snowy Owl that showed up in January of 2009 at Spring Hill near the General Motors plant. I traveled with fellow Carter County birders Tom McNeil, Rob Biller and Brookie and Jean Potter to see that bird.

Last month, during a trip to South Carolina, I added a woodpecker that I have long wanted to see on the list. Again, I was in the company of Brookie and Jean Potter. We were also joined by David Thometz, who also had never seen this particular bird.

I had considered past trips to South Carolina as well as Georgia to look for this bird, but for one reason or another, those quests never materialized. Ironically, when I did make the attempt during a recent South Carolina vacation, I saw several Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in a single location.

We found a group of these woodpeckers while driving along the approach to the Santee Coastal Reserve near Georgetown, S.C. The Potters had previously observed Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in this area. We drove until we found some suitable habitat. We parked, exited the vehicle and began scanning for the birds.

We didn’t have to wait for long. We first spotted a pair of woodpeckers, but soon other individuals made an appearance. These woodpeckers live in family groups, which can include the male and female, their chicks and young adult “helpers.” These “helpers” are usually related young from previous nesting seasons. They assist with excavating nest cavities and caring for younger members of the group.

This type of behavior means the woodpecker is considered a cooperative breeder, meaning they live in extended families with one breeding pair and several adult helpers. The family group, or clan, roosts near each other but inside their own individual roosting cavities.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers roost and nest in cavities that they excavate for themselves in live longleaf pine trees. Their cavities are built only in large, old pines. For that reason, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a habitat specialist, and its survival depends on having enough suitable habitat available to support a viable population. This woodpecker is an official Endangered Species, but appears to be holding its own thanks to diligent management provided by federal programs.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is unusually vocal — even for a woodpecker. They are particularly noisy in the early morning and right before settling in to roost at night. They also vocalize constantly during the day to keep in touch with other members of the clan while they move as a group through their territory.

While watching the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, we also spotted a few Brown-headed Nuthatches. Both of these birds are habitat specialists that depend on large, mature stands of longleaf pines in order to thrive.

In addition to using binoculars to watch the woodpeckers, I appreciated using a spotting scope belonging to the Potters to get an even closer look at them.

We would have stayed and watched the woodpeckers even longer, but the fierce mosquitoes that share habitat with the woodpeckers had claimed all the blood I was willing to give them. Even after we drove on for a great seafood dinner at Seewee Restaurant in the town of Awendaw later that evening, we kept having to squish mosquitoes that had gotten back into the vehicle with us.

I celebrated my first-ever Red-cockaded Woodpecker observation with a feast of fried shrimp, oysters, scallops and flounders. On that day, South Carolina was truly generous to me.


The goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery program for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is to conserve the species and the ecosystem upon which it depends. Completed projects will result in the restoration of longleaf pine forest communities. Not only does this effort preserve habitat for the woodpecker, but is also of benefit for many high priority migratory birds, including Bachman’s Sparrow, Prairie Warbler, Brown Thrasher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee and Eastern Wood-pewee.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are endangered because the open forests with big, old pine trees have been replaced by forests with younger, smaller pines. Also, periodic natural fires, which historically kept the pinewoods open, have been suppressed since settlement of these same woodlands. Periodic fire is needed to control the brushy understory and keep the pinewoods open. It is mostly through controlled burns that habitat for these woodpeckers is managed by government agencies.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker received federal designation as an Endangered Species on Oct. 13, 1970. Today, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is found in 11 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas) and occurs on federal, state and private lands.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker also historically ranged into Tennessee. It was once spread over much of Tennessee but eventually became restricted to the Cumberland Plateau and part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society Dr. Fred Alsop in 1996 wrote a species account of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

In his account, Alsop noted that the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was formerly more widely distributed over Tennessee in mature pine stands, principally on the southern Coastal Plain, the Cumberland Plateau and the southern end of the Unaka Mountains.

By 1980, however, the woodpecker was restricted to five counties in the Cumberland Plateau (Pickett, Cumberland, Morgan, Grundy and Campbell) and to the extreme western portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Blount County with a population estimated at 6 to 25 individual birds.

Alsop also noted that in 1987, a small colony was discovered in Polk County. This colony became the last stronghold of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in the Volunteer State and survived into the 1990s. The last member of the Polk County colony (one lonely male) was last seen in December of 1994. The species had been in a severe decline in the state for several years due to loss of suitable habitat.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have increased in number range-wide in response to recovery and management programs, from an estimated 4,694 active clusters in 1993 to 6,105 in 2006. Management plans have been developed for federal and state agencies with recovery populations. On private lands, more than 40 percent of the known Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are benefiting from management approved by the Service through Memorandum of Agreements, Safe Harbor Agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans.

However, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker remains absent from the Volunteer State. This woodpecker is related to the Downy Woodpecker, which is a frequent visitor at feeders in the region, as well as the Hairy Woodpecker.

More than 100 years ago, the range of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker ranged farther north than Tennessee, even being found in coastal Maryland and into New Jersey. Drastic losses of old-growth pine habitat throughout the 20th century reduced woodpecker populations to 1 percent throughout their former range in the United States.

About the size of the Northern Cardinal, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is approximately eight inches long. This woodpecker feeds primarily on ants, beetles, cockroaches, caterpillars, wood-boring insects and spiders. Occasionally, this woodpecker will also consume fruit and berries.

The woodpecker is named with an obscure term, “cockade,” for an even more obscure physical feature. The term “cockade” means an ornament (such as a knot of ribbon or a rosette) usually worn on a hat. Most cockades were originally military decorations for soldiers. The term is now rarely in use.

The small red streak on each side of the bird’s black cap is called a cockade, hence its name. The red “cockade” on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker isn’t even a reliable field mark. It is only present on males, and usually then only during the breeding season or occasionally when the bird is agitated.

A better name for this bird would have been the White-cheeked Woodpecker. Its back is barred with black and white horizontal stripes, but the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s most distinguishing features are a black cap and nape that encircle large white cheek patches.

With my sighting of these Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in South Carolina, I have probably seen all the woodpeckers native to the southeastern United States. I’m always hopeful, but not expectant, that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still haunts swampy woodlands in some locations in Arkansas, Louisiana or even South Carolina.

At best, however, the jury’s still out on whether the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists or is extinct. For now, with a little help from us, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker looks like it will continue to be a familiar citizen of the longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States.


The first part of my October South Carolina trip involved four days on Fripp Island, where I managed to locate 71 species of birds. Some of the best birds to make the list included Wilson’s Plover, Anhinga, Marsh Wren, Wood Stork and White Ibis. Warbler migration was still proceeding through South Carolina at the time of my visit, which resulted in sightings of Palm Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Pine Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

I also found five Piping Plovers on the dunes at the beach on Fripp Island. These small, pale plovers are, like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, also listed as an Endangered Species by the federal government.

I will continue to share more about the birds encountered during my recent South Carolina trip in upcoming columns.


To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send e-mail to or I’m also on Facebook.

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