Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Picoides borealis
By Susan Hamilton, SC Master Naturalist & Palmetto Pro Birder

When Europeans first settled in America, as many as 1.6 million family groups of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) inhabited the long-leaf pine forests of the Southeast. Today, approximately 3 percent remain and the birds are considered federally endangered. However, recovery efforts are successfully growing the populations, particularly in South Carolina where federal, state and private individuals are working to help these birds thrive.

“As a single state, when I look at designated recovery populations, I would have to say South Carolina is the best at rebounding populations (of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers),” according to Will McDearman, RCW Recovery Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Red-cockaded woodpecker is the second-smallest woodpecker in South Carolina, measuring about seven inches in length. It has a black-and-white barred back, with solid black cap and white neck and chest similar to both the hairy and downy woodpeckers. However, only the red-cockaded woodpecker has white cheeks, and males have a small “cockade” of red feathers behind their eyes that is usually difficult to observe. It inhabits mature long-leaf pine forests, living in isolated clans that generally consist of one female and a group of males that helps feed and protect the family unit. Diet consists primarily of insects although it will also eat wild fruit and pine nuts. It is the only woodpecker that builds cavities in living trees, choosing long-leaf pines infected with the heartwood fungus. It encourages the flow of sap around the cavity to keep predators from disturbing nests. It is found in 11 southern states from Texas to Virginia with a national population estimated at about 14,000 birds.

RCW populations declined as a result of loss of habitat and changes in land use. Where 90 million acres of long-leaf pines once flourished throughout the Southeast, only about 2 million acres remain today following massive harvesting in the 1700s and 1800s for commercial timber and the turpentine industry. Forests were further depleted by farming and harmed by fire suppression. A single RCW clan needs between 70 and 200 acres to survive. Nationally, there are about 5,600 RCW clans. In South Carolina, there were 657 clusters on state and federal properties in the year 2000, and another 400 on private property according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Of those, 342 existed in Francis Marion National Forest despite those populations being nearly wiped out by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. According to the national US Fish and Wildlife Service, Francis Marion is one of four national core sites that has met its recovery goals and now boasts 440 clusters – more than any other site nationally.

The RCW populations are rebounding due to both a better understanding of ecology as well as human intervention. Whereas fire was suppressed for many years, federal, state and private landowners now understand that fire is necessary to maintain a long-leaf habitat. Controlled burns are now a commonly-accepted practice to reduce undergrowth and allow the forests to thrive. Additionally, much of the RCW population growth is attributed to the placement of artificial cavities in long-leaf pine trees. Naturally, it takes RCWs years to carve a nest into the extremely dense native pines while the placement of manufactured cavities quickly welcomes new clusters of birds.

“We’ve grown by artificial cavities, there’s no question. Otherwise, I don’t know if we would have saved the species,” says McDearman. The federal government is targeting a 5 percent yearly population growth on its properties. It has achieved about a 4 percent increase over the past five years.

Woodpeckers are also being aided by private landowners. Because RCWs are listed as endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), landowners have an obligation to protect the birds and their habitats. These requirements are essentially frozen if the landowner participates in the national Safe Harbor program that encourages habitat restoration through specific improvements. The Safe Harbor program is voluntarily and can be terminated at any time. Currently, South Carolina leads the nation in Safe Harbor participants with 151 private landowners enrolled.

Throughout the Southeast, the federal government would like to see Red-cockaded clusters increase to 7,000 before they are removed from the endangered species list. With the work being done in South Carolina and elsewhere, however, federal officials are optimistic these birds will someday make a full recovery.

Submitted: 05/22/14