Red-cockaded woodpecker, © USFWS Southeast

Road to Recovery: Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Defenders of Wildlife has set itself the goal of moving more than 100 endangered species up the federal recovery ladder over the next decade. Our “Road to Recovery” series highlights several of these plants and animals and outline the challenges that lay ahead for improving their status.

Truly one of the most unique species of woodpecker in the world, the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) has a variety of specialized characteristics that make it unlike any other bird. A socially gregarious bird, the RCW uses a variety of calls to vocalize and communicate throughout the day. Its white cheeks, spotted back, and black crown make it easily distinguishable from other woodpeckers. Thought to resemble a cockade, the only real color is a small cluster of red hairs above the eyes of the male, hence the name “red-cockaded woodpecker”. But what really make these animals so unusual are two life history traits. First, the RCW is the only woodpecker that creates hollows in living pine trees, preferably longleaf pines around a century old. Secondly, red-cockaded woodpeckers live in miniature communities, which can have up to nine members, in a very specific environment: longleaf pine forest.  Unfortunately, this lifestyle, while very unique, creates many limitations for this endangered species.

Red-cockaded woodpecker, © U.S. Marine Corps

Red-cockaded woodpecker (© U.S. Marine Corps)

Red-cockaded woodpeckers once inhabited a wide range of the southeastern United States, but their distribution soon began to diminish, and thanks to agricultural clearing, industrial development and urban expansion.  As the RCW began to lose more of its habitat, the USFWS decided to list the bird as endangered in 1970; in 1973, federal protection was granted to this endangered species with the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

With only a minor percentage of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker’s mature longleaf pine forest habitat left in the southeastern United States, Defenders has continued its efforts to put a halt to additional habitat loss for this rare species of woodpecker.  With the help and efforts of several other conservation partners, Defenders turned its attention to Fort Benning and a major redevelopment project that would be taking place on this military base in Georgia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally concluded that this project harm the woodpecker. Instead of making the decision to sue the Defense Department, Defenders worked hand-in-hand with the military to come up with a reasonable solution, where the Army agreed to curtail some of their development plans in the most sensitive habitat.  As of October 2009, Fort Benning supports over 300 RCW clusters with 287 groups with potential to breed.

Overall, red-cockaded woodpecker numbers have increased thanks to the implementation of ESA recovery programs such as this one. Among the 11 states in which the RCW resides, there were an estimated 4,694 active clusters in 1993.  That number increased to 6,105 in 2006, and is still on the rise today.

Defenders continues its efforts to prevent any further destruction of longleaf pine forests remaining in the southeastern United States. We are also working with the Army at Fort Benning to develop a safeguard between civilian land and the base.

John Yeingst, Defenders’ Communications Coordinator