Red-cockaded Woodpecker Leuconotopicus borealis


Justification of Red List Category
This species is listed as Near Threatened because its moderately small population is precautionarily assumed to be in slow decline based on known threats and local trends. In parts of the range, the species was found to be recovering due to intense conservation action.

Population justification
The population is estimated at 19,000 mature individuals (Partners in Flight 2019).

Trend justification
This species underwent a large and statistically significant overall decrease estimated at 81% between 1970 and 2014 (Rosenberg et al. 2016), and James (1995) calculated a 23% decline in the number of clusters between the early 1980s and 1990. More recently, some large areas of Federal land have demonstrated increases in both the number of individuals and of clusters as a result of intensive management (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008, W. McDearman in litt. 2010). For example, between 1994 and 2002, populations at six military installations increased by as much as 50% (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). As a result of conservation action, several population may currently be stable, and could be increasing overall, although some subpopulations are known to still be in decline and losing their viability (W. McDearman in litt. 2010, Sauer et al. 2017, Jackson 2020), even despite intense conservation intervention (D. Wood in litt. 2020). It has been hypothesised that there may be a time-lag between reintroduction and translocation events and the actual population growth due to the fact that groups will be small at first, but increase their reproductive rate with time (D. Wood in litt. 2020). Until the situation is clarified, an on-going slow decline is precautionarily suspected, on the basis that further cluster losses may be occurring in some subpopulations.  

Distribution and population

This species was originally distributed throughout the southeastern USA; however from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, it declined rapidly due to the extensive alteration of mature pine forests (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). During the late 20th century it continued to decline, undergoing a large and statistically significant overall decrease between 1970 and 2014 (81% decline, data from Breeding Bird Survey and/or Christmas Bird Count [Rosenberg et al. 2016]), and James (1995) calculated a 23% decline in the number of known sites ("clusters", groups of trees actively used by potential breeding groups of mature woodpeckers) between the early 1980s and 1990. In 1999, it was limited to c. 30 isolated populations (the largest in South Carolina and Florida), totalling c. 4,700 groups or c. 11,000 individuals and occupying just 4,000 km2 (Jackson 1994, Guynn 1997, J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). However, the most recent population estimates suggests that the population now exceeds 10,000 mature individuals, with an estimate of 15,000 mature individuals in 2016 (Rosenberg et al. 2016) and 19,000 mature individuals in 2018 (Partners in Flight 2019), up from 14,068 individuals, arranged in 5,627 clusters (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2003). The unusual co-operative breeding biology of the species means that the actual number of reproductive units is lower than that expected from the estimate of mature individuals (D. Wood in litt. 2016). Hence while the overall population may now be stable with the targeted recovery populations increasing (Department of Defense/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in litt. 2006, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008, W. McDearman in litt. 2010), the structure of the population, documented local declines and the continued loss of some clusters suggest that the precautionary approach is to continue to suspect an on-going, slow overall decline. Its apparent recovery in many areas is the result of successful conservation efforts, including habitat management, nest-site provision and translocation of birds (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008), whilst improved knowledge has been acquired owing to intensive studies. It is not clear if such management ceased, habitat improvements are yet sufficient enough to support continued population increases without the additional intensive management (J. R. Walters in litt. 2013).


The species inhabits fire-sustained open pine-forest, dominated in half of its range by longleaf pine Pinus palustris and elsewhere by shortleaf P. echinata, slash P. elliotti, or loblolly P. taeda pines (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). It is a cooperative breeder, with each group requiring at least 80 ha of habitat (Walters et al. 1988, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2003). Nesting trees appear to be selected on the rate and duration of fresh resin production, utilised by the birds to protect their nest holes from arboreal predators, such as climbing rat snakes Elaphe obsoleta (Jackson 1994). The selected tree also needs a sufficiently large, living heartwood which is infected with red heart fungus, so the tree must be over 80 years old (often 100+, age of suitability varies by pine species) (U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2003). Groups are typically comprised of a pair and up to five adult helpers, which are mostly offspring from previous years and mostly male as dispersal is female-biased (Jackson 1994, Conner et al. 2001). Eggs are laid from late April to early June (Winkler et al. 1995). Foraging habitat preferences differ between the sexes and females are negatively influenced by the loss of old-growth trees (Jackson 2000). One study showed that adults were heavier, and both adults and nestlings apparently sourced more food in shortleaf and loblolly pine habitats than in longleaf pine forest (Schaefer et al. 2004)


Because of its biology and preference for older-growth forest, this species is said to be uniquely susceptible to rapid declines under inappropriate management regimes (J. R. Walters in litt. 2013). The long-term clearance and economic management of habitat has reduced the viability of all populations. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the species decreased rapidly as mature pine forest was altered, primarily for timber harvest and agriculture (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). Longleaf pine communities in the southeastern USA may have originally covered c. 24-37 million ha, but today fewer than 1.2 million ha remain (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). The excessive cutting of old-growth forests is reported to still be taking place in some areas (J. A. Jackson in litt. 2012). Suppression of the natural fire regime allowing an increase in mid-storey hardwood density has rendered large areas of habitat unsuitable for the species (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2003). This has isolated nest-sites, making abandonment or group extirpation increasingly likely (Thomlinson 1995); translocation of these isolated groups for population augmentation elsewhere makes the loss of the site certain. Translocation of birds to federal and private lands may also swamp locally adapted gene pools (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). Inbreeding depression has been highlighted as a potentially serious problem in small and isolated populations (Schiegg et al. 2006), and may be exacerbated by female-biased dispersal in small and fragmented populations (Dale 2001) which appears the case for the species (Daniels and Walters 2000). 

Fire management (involving regular burning) has aided habitat restoration, but as human populations expand there is increasing pressure to suppress fires. Exempting landowners from the Endangered Species Act has resulted in rapid declines on private land (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). Loss of nesting cavities to Southern flying squirrels Glaucomys volans may contribute to breeding site limitation, as may cavity enlargement by Pileated Woodpecker Hylatomus pileatus (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2003, Saenz et al. 2008). Southern pine beetle Dendroctonus frontalis infests cavities and kills nesting trees (Conner and Rudolph 1995, U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2003) (although they have a positive effect on woodpecker foraging both as a food item, and by creating arthropod rich dead-wood habitat [Schaefer et al. 2004]). Beetle infestations have increased since habitat management for the woodpecker started in 1988 (Conner and Rudolph 1995)

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
The emphasis has been on site-specific management (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). Intensive activities include translocating young females from natal sites to groups lacking a female, constructing artificial cavities (Jackson 1994), and fitting restrictor plates to prevent D. pileatus enlarging cavities (Carter et al. 1989, Saenz et al. 1998, Wood et al. 2000). Adults have also been successfully translocated from sites that have been allowed to become isolated, and can augment the population in the receptor sites, but with lower success than for the translocation of young birds (Herbez et al. 2011, Cox and McCormick 2016). Habitat is managed (regular burning and understorey clearance) on some federal lands, but not always appropriately (Jackson 1994). Mechanical removal of the midstory and understory, which is substituting burning where fire is difficult to use, however lacks the additional ecological value of fires (D. Wood in litt. 2020). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Foraging Matrix Application in 2004, which uses a habitat suitability modelling approach to assess the ability of sites to sustain populations via quantitative assessments of stand-level and territory-level habitat quality (McKellar et al. 2014). This has been used to assess potential impacts of projects that may affect foraging habitat, such as development, harvesting or modification (e.g. thinning of pine stands) (McKellar et al. 2014). In South Carolina the "Safe Harbor" scheme offers financial incentives to private landowners who undertake beneficial management prescriptions (Duncan et al. 2001, Smith et al. 2018). Local population increases have been dependent on intensive management (J. R. Walters in litt. 2013).

Conservation Actions Proposed
Monitor populations, especially where managed. Ensure co-ordination of management actions within subpopulations. Encourage long-term management through prescribed burning as the most effective method for maintaining suitable habitat in longleaf pine forests (Steen et al. 2013). Improve models used to assess impacts of projects affecting habitat by incorporating site specific information (McKellar et al. 2014). Continue to provide incentives for landowners to maintain/enhance habitat (Kennedy et al. 1996, Bonnie 1997). Fit restrictor plates only where cavities are scarce (Saenz et al. 1998). Document and monitor translocations (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). Replace even-aged forest management with selective or no cutting (J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999). Establish habitat corridors (e.g. along highways) (Jackson 1994).


22 cm. A rather small black-and-white woodpecker with longish bill. Above black barred white. Below white with black spots or streaks on flanks. Black crown, nape and moustachial stripe border white cheeks and side of neck. Male has a few tiny red feathers (usually hidden) on the side of crown. Juvenile duller black with variable extent of red on center of forehead, juvenile female with flecks of white on forehead, especially near the bill. Similar spp. Hairy Woodpecker P. villosus usually lacks "ladder-backed" appearance and white cheek patch. Voice Drumming infrequent and not loud. Distinctive shrrit call most commonly heard, also a rattle and wide range of social twittering and chortles. Hints Active nest and roost-trees have distinctive sap flows from small, shallow holes excavated above and below the cavity.


Text account compilers
Martin, R., Hermes, C.

Benstead, P., Bird, J., Calvert, R., Isherwood, I., Jackson, J.A., McDearman, W., Taylor, J., Walters, J., Wege, D. & Wood, D.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Leuconotopicus borealis. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/red-cockaded-woodpecker-leuconotopicus-borealis on 01/06/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org on 01/06/2023.