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Mississippi

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

History and Range

In the early 1900s, John James Audubon reported that the red-cockaded woodpecker was found “abundantly” in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. Historically, this woodpecker's range extended from Florida to New Jersey, as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, and inland to Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with an original population numbering over 1.5 million.

Today it is estimated that there are about 6,000 family units (groups) of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or 15,000 birds, living in clusters (groups of cavity trees) from Florida to Virginia and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas, representing less than 1 percent of the woodpecker's population at the time of European settlement.

The red-cockaded woodpecker has been on the endangered species list since October 1970 (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973). In Mississippi, red-cockaded woodpeckers are found primarily in the North Central Hills, South Central Hills and Pine Belt regions.

Threats

Red-cockaded woodpeckers have declined along with the quantity and quality of the pine forests they need for nesting and foraging.

The overall number of older pines and the size of the forests have both decreased. The remaining forestland is highly fragmented, making it hard for new generations of birds to find suitable sites.

Regular fires help maintain open forests the birds prefer; fire suppression has had a detrimental effect on the red-cockaded population.  

Characteristics

Red-cockaded woodpeckers...

  • grow to approximately 7 inches in length and have a wingspan of about 15 inches – about the size of the common cardinal;
  • make their homes in mature, open pine forests with grassy or herbaceous understory, few mid-story trees, and pines averaging 60 to 100 years old. They prefer longleaf pines, but will nest in other pine species;
  • have complex social systems; they live in groups which may include a mated pair, their current year’s offspring and helpers, which are usually adult male birds. These young males help with incubating eggs, feeding young, constructing new cavities and defending the group’s territory. Young females are more likely to disperse, but these woodpeckers are not far-ranging birds. If suitable habitat is not close by, the new generation of birds may not succeed;
  • lay 2-4 eggs, in cavities usually created by males, in mid-April, and incubation lasts 10-12 days. Young are fledged in about 24-27 days;
  • peck numerous, small resin wells around the hole which exude sap, which deters predators, especially snakes;
  • eat primarily insects but may also eat small fruits and seeds in season.
What The Nature Conservancy Is Doing

In every state where red-cockaded woodpeckers are found, the Conservancy is at work to conserve, maintain and restore habitat that these birds need to survive.

Because they require mature, open pine forests, prescribed fire plays a critical role in maintaining and restoring habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers. Seasonal doses of fire keeps woody underbrush at bay and prevents the woodlands from becoming too dense with trees.

Additionally, the Conservancy works with private and industrial forest landowners in developing timber management solutions that are ecologically sustainable and capable of supporting red-cockaded populations and that provide good economic returns.

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