The red-cockaded woodpecker is a small woodpecker approximately 7 inches long. This species is named for the rarely-visible red “cockade” that is on the back of the male’s head. Though similar in color and pattern, this woodpecker can be distinguished from other species by its conspicuous white cheek patches and heavily-barred back.
Historically, the red-cockaded woodpecker occurred throughout the shortleaf pine-dominated forests in McCurtain, Pushmataha, LeFlore, and Latimer counties, and may have even occurred in portions of the Ozarks in northeastern Oklahoma. The only remaining population in the state lies on the McCurtain County Wilderness Area and adjacent Ouachita National Forest. This population has fewer than 50 birds. In Oklahoma, these woodpeckers nest only in mature (more than 80 years old) shortleaf pines that are also infected with red-heart fungus disease. This disease causes the heartwood of the pine to rot, thereby allowing the woodpeckers to more easily excavate a cavity. Living trees also continue to produce sap, or resin, which allows red-cockaded woodpeckers to create a sticky barrier around the cavity entrance. This deters snakes and other predators from climbing the tree, increasing the chances of survival for adults, eggs, and chicks.
Unique among woodpeckers, this bird nests almost exclusively in living pine trees. In Oklahoma, nesting begins in late April and early May. Two to four eggs are incubated for only 10-12 days. Chicks fledge at 26 days, but may remain near the nest tree for several days thereafter. This is one of only two North American woodpecker species with a cooperative breeding system, where young birds, known as “helpers,” from previous broods remain in the territory to assist the breeding pair with the raising of young. Family groups live in a stand of cavity trees, called a “cluster.” These groups vary in size, but most commonly consist of the breeding pair and 1-3 helpers.
Approximately 8.5 inches in length.
Prior to European settlement, mature pine forests were estimated to have covered more than 200 million acres throughout the southeastern United States. This ecosystem, often called a pine savannah, was shaped through periodic fires that would spread across the landscape and maintain a forest structure composed of large, mature pine trees and an open, herbaceous understory dominated by grasses and other low-growing plants. This open mid-story allows for abundant plant growth and productivity, which in turn creates habitat for abundant insect diversity that red-cockaded woodpeckers depend on as a food source. Widespread logging between the 1880s and 1920s removed most of the old-growth pine forest in the southeast, which caused a direct and far-reaching population decline of the species. After settlement, fires were largely reduced, causing many remaining forested areas to be too dense and unsuitable for red-cockaded woodpeckers. Since 1991, the Wildlife Diversity Program has closely monitored the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers on the McCurtain County Wilderness Area. Through ESA Section 6 funds, biologists monitor each active cluster. Each nest is recorded, along with the number of eggs laid and chicks hatched. At 7 days of age, red-cockaded woodpecker chicks are outfitted with a unique metal leg band. After chicks fledge, they are then trapped again in late summer or early fall and outfitted with color bands that correspond with the year hatched. These bands act as markers which allow the Wildlife Department to track the birds’ annual survival and movements. To facilitate the expansion and recovery of the species, artificial nest cavity inserts are installed in “recruitment clusters.”