They’re only about the size of a cardinal, but they play a huge role in the intricate web of life of the southern pine forests.
Making their home in mature pine forests, preferably Longleaf pines, these birds excavate in living mature pine trees, usually around 80 years old, unlike other woodpeckers which bore out cavities in dead rotten and soft trees. The Red-cockaded may take from 1 to 6 years to bore out a suitable cavity in these trees.
Due to the widespread commercial timber harvesting, the European settlements and naval store/turpentine industry from the 1700s on through the mid 1900s, the longleaf pine ecosystem initially disappeared. Today many of the southern pine forests are young, which has made it difficult for the Red-cockaded to survive.
I have seen in a few areas of North Carolina where many different measures are being put in place to protect these birds. Controlled burns are done to help thin out the forest making it healthier for the remaining trees to thrive. Keeping many Longleaf pine forests protected from harvesting so that these birds can continue to have a home.
These birds are rarely visible, you will typically hear them first. I will go birding in the Longleaf pine forests and I stop to listen ever so often, when I hear sounds of what some say is a squeaky toy, then I know that the Red-cockaded is around. Though be careful, the small Brown-headed Nuthatch has a similar squeaky toy sound, though a bit higher pitched.
These woodpeckers were once considered common throughout the longleaf pine ecosystem, with an estimated population of 1.5 million “groups” or family units. Currently there is estimated to be only 14,068 birds left in 11 states!!!
They will make several cavities in a cluster which may include 1 to 20 trees in a 3 to 60 acre area. They ones that they actively use will have small resin wells which exude sap. These smart Woodpeckers will keep the sap flowing as a defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker play a vital role in the intricate web of life by building their nest cavities. At least 27 species of vertebrates have been document as using their cavities either for roosting or nesting. Such species include birds, snakes, squirrels, insects, frogs and lizards! Some species, like the wood ducks will only use the cavities that have been abandoned by the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and have had the entrance enlarged by the Pileated Woodpeckers. However many other species can use the cavities without any alterations, such as the Brown-headed Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Redbellied Woodpeckers, Redheaded Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds, Great Crested Flycatchers and Flying Squirrels.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a valuable asset to our planet and should not be lost!