This woodpecker is named for the red “cockade” that exists behind the eye only on males of the species. Both sexes have similar black- and white-barred upper parts, black crowns and white cheeks. It is a relatively small bird with an average length of 8.5 inches, wingspan of 14 inches and weight of 1.5 ounces.
A rare bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker lives only in mature pine forests in the American south and southeast. Like most woodpeckers, it pecks on wood, but its tastes are somewhat more specific than most varieties. It seeks out only living pines with red heart disease, a fungus that affects the tree’s heartwood, in which it excavates nesting holes, drilling smaller holes to drain pitch. The bird favors longleaf pines. The only woodpecker in its range that excavates living trees, the red-cockaded woodpecker performs a highly specialized niche role in the critically imperiled longleaf pine ecosystems.
The specificity of the bird’s breeding habitat makes it extremely vulnerable to habitat loss. Red heart fungus was once common in trees at least 70 years old, but most pines are cut before they reach that age, resulting in a shortage of nesting sites. Fire suppression has also negatively impacted the species, retarding the development of its preferred fire-dependent longleaf pine ecosystem.
Consequentially, conservation efforts have focused on the installation of artificial cavities for nesting and controlled burns. The red-cockaded woodpecker is currently listed as endangered in the United States, but populations are nearing the prescribed guidelines for delisting. In Texas, both the bird and the longleaf pine ecosystem are protected at the Conservancy’s Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in Hardin County.