Red-cockaded Woodpecker with Wild Woman

Arkansas Today

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a cool, little bird that is an endangered species and lives in large, mature pine trees with its family group.

Why are they called a “cockaded” woodpecker?

A cockade is a ribbon or ornament worn on a hat. The “cockade” of the red-cockaded woodpecker is the tiny red line on the side of the head of the male. It may be hidden and is very difficult to see in the field. Despite their name, they are mostly black and white.

Are they social?

Yes! The red-cockaded woodpecker is a cooperative breeder: it lives in small family groups of one breeding pair and several helpers. The extra birds usually are sons from previous breeding seasons (daughters rarely stay with their parents). The helpers assist in incubation, brooding, feeding, and creating cavities. A family of red-cockaded woodpeckers excavates a number of cavities within their territory and each bird roosts in its own cavity.  

What kind of nests do they create?

The red-cockaded woodpecker roosts and nests in live pines, usually ones infected with red heart fungus. The disease softens the wood and makes the cavity excavation easier. The cavity may extend upward to reduce the likelihood of rain flowing into the cavity, and far enough up for a bird to take refuge from a predator reaching in. The birds also peck holes in the bark around the nest entrance, causing the tree to leak pitch that helps keep tree-climbing snakes away. It may take two years or more to completely dig out one cavity. The breeding male roosts in the best cavity, usually the one most recently created and with the heaviest sap flow. The eggs are laid in this cavity, and the male incubates them at night.

Why are they endangered?

The red-cockaded woodpecker evolved in old-growth, open-understory pine forests of the southeastern United States. These forests were created and naturally maintained by fires every one to five years that were ignited by lightning strikes and Native Americans. This habitat was once extensive and this woodpecker was once considered one of the most common birds of the southeastern pine forests, but they almost disappeared during logging in the twentieth century. Unlike other woodpeckers, they need living trees (rather than dead trees) with red heart disease. Red heart disease tends to attack trees over 70 years old, but currently, most pines are cut before reaching that age. They also need an open parklike habitat rich with insects they eat. Fire is an important tool that maintains this habitat. Many other animals, such as the bobwhite quail also thrive in this habitat.

How are red-cockaded woodpeckers doing in Arkansas?

This little woodpecker is undergoing a dramatic recovery similar to the one seen for bald eagles.

Thanks to the efforts of several conservation organizations, red-cockaded woodpeckers had a banner nesting year in 2019 in three natural areas. To help establish colonies, biologists create artificial cavities in trees that are preferred by the woodpeckers before releasing them into a new area. And, work continues to create and maintain the open pine forests they need to thrive. Check out to see hotspots where colonies of these woodpeckers live such as Pine City Natural Area (near Holly Grove), Warren Prairie Natural Area (near Warren), Huttig Pine Flatwoods (near Strong), and Moro Big Pine Natural Area (near Hampton). 

For more information, click here!

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