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Times of the Islands Magazine

Red-cockaded Woodpecker: Once abundant, this woodpecker is now endangered in Florida

Jun 26, 2017 02:00PM ● By Kevin

A red-cockaded woodpecker foraging on arthropod larvae. Photo by William R. Cox.

Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County offers prime habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Photo by William R. Cox.

Of the 22 species of woodpeckers in North America and 217 worldwide, Florida is home to 11 species, including the dwindling population of the red-cockaded woodpecker.

This is a small woodpecker, measuring 7.1-7.3 inches in total length, with a wingspan of 13.8-14.8 inches. It weighs only 45 grams. The male is slightly larger than the female.

Other Florida woodpeckers are the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is believed to be extinct; pileated woodpecker; northern flicker; red-bellied woodpecker; yellow-bellied sapsucker; red-headed woodpecker; hairy woodpecker; and downy woodpecker.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is easily distinguished from other Florida woodpeckers by its horizontally barred back and predominant white cheek patches. It also has a black crown and nape resembling a mohawk hairstyle. The red-bellied woodpecker is the only other woodpecker in Florida that has a horizontally barred back, but it is much larger than the red-cockaded woodpecker and has a large amount of red visible on the head.

The red-cockaded woodpecker was documented as abundant in the 19th century throughout the southeastern United States. Historically, it was found throughout peninsula Florida, south to the Homestead area, ranging throughout all 67 counties of Florida. Its range still covers most of Florida, but its population declined significantly during the 20th century after clearing of mature pine forests by the timber industry.

A red-cockaded woodpecker leaving its nesting cavity in live slash pine. Photo by William R. Cox.

Remaining red-cockaded woodpeckers are located in widely scattered and isolated subpopulations. Approximately 75 percent of the Florida population is in the panhandle within the Apalachicola National Forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the red-cockaded woodpecker in Florida as federally endangered.

This species requires large stands of mature to over-mature southern pines 30-60 years of age or greater for its habitat. Historically, it used long-leaf pine the most, but in Florida it is most likely to use slash pine for its habitat. The forest areas used by the red-cockaded woodpecker are open park-like stands lacking a thick understory of hardwoods and exotic vegetation because of frequent burning. It needs these open areas to observe and fly to their cavities.

The Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area, 25 miles north of Fort Myers and 10 miles northeast of Cape Coral, provides such a habitat and offers a good place to view this woodpecker species.

The red-cockaded woodpecker’s home range varies in size throughout Florida. In north Florida, where long-leaf pine habitat quality is higher, home ranges average 300-350 acres, whereas south Florida’s slash pine habitats average 350-400 acres.

This is the only North American woodpecker that excavates its roosting and nesting cavities in mature live pine trees. It can excavate a cavity, measuring 2.25 inches in diameter, in one to three years. The cavity is placed 3-10 feet below the lowest crown branches on the southwest or west side of the tree. A cluster (colony) of cavity trees also includes abandoned cavity trees and trees with start holes.

Photo by William R. Cox.

Cavity trees have greater heartwood diameter and thinner sapwood than other mature pines. They usually are infected with heartwood disease caused by the “red heart” fungus that decays the heartwood and aids in cavity excavation. When the cavity is completed, “resin wells” are placed around the tree, especially around the cavity entrance. These wells are maintained to sustain the flow of sap, giving the cavity tree a candle-like appearance. This continuous flow of sap is a strong deterrent to rat snakes and other predators of cavity-nesting birds.

Breeding season in Florida runs from mid to late April through early June. The female usually has one brood. Clutch size is two to five eggs. Incubation is only 10-11 days, one of the shortest periods among all birds. The young fledge in 27-28 days.

The red-cockaded woodpecker forages mostly on spiders and the eggs, larvae and adults of arthropods. It will also feed occasionally on fruits and pine masts.

Survival of the red-cockaded woodpecker depends on setting aside and managing more public and private land supporting mature growth of open pine forests that have a mixture of trees ranging in age from 30 to 60 years old or more. You can help by visiting and supporting existing national and state forests, as managing land is expensive.

Written by William R. Cox, who has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at