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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Disney Wilderness Preserve A Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) at the restored longleaf pine forest in The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve. Located south of Orlando, the 12,000-acre preserve straddles the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem. The Conservancy works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a program to return the red-cockaded woodpecker to the preserve. Locally extinct for decades, relocated Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are adapting well in man-made cavities within the restored longleaf pine habitat. The rejuvenated longleaf pine forest – with its lush understory of native grasses and forbs, saw palmetto and other shrubs – is one result of the return of prescribed fire to the land. © Carlton Ward, Jr.

Stories in Florida

Reintroducing the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Once on the brink of extinction, a keystone species returns to Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Red cockaded woodpeckers tend to mate for life in permanent territories, and their young often stay a year or two to support the next year’s chicks.

Breeding pairs of elusive red-cockaded woodpeckers have been established at Disney Wilderness Preserve. The red-cockaded woodpecker had been forced to the brink of extinction and was extirpated, or locally extinct, at the preserve for decades. But, thanks to 20 years of  careful restoration and management of the preserve’s longleaf pine habitat, it appears the preserve is able to support the species again. Vegetation is lush, with limited invasive species, due to controlled burns conducted by the Conservancy.

Breeding pairs are transported to the preserve each year. The rare birds are carried in boxes as juveniles from North Florida or Georgia. The translocation program is exact: Following strict federal rules, red-cockaded woodpeckers are carefully captured from healthy populations. They’re quickly transferred to the new site, where they again receive careful handling. At night, biologists climb longleaf pine trees, which have been prepared with man-made cavities. In the dark, they load the birds in the cavities. The nest hole is covered with a cloth, with a drawstring leading down to the forest floor. At sunrise, all the cavities are simultaneously opened, allowing the birds to immediately see potential mates.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species that provides a service to its ecosystem. A total of 27 other species have been documented using RCW cavities, including lizards, frogs, snakes, squirrels and other birds.

Nesting Facts

In Florida, red-cockaded woodpecker breeding season lasts May–July. After the female selects her mate, they will share a territory, often living in nearby tree cavities for seven or eight years or until one dies.

The pair creates a nest high up in the cavity of an old-growth longleaf pine tree. It will be clean and full of wood chips on the inside. Sticky tree sap on the outside makes it snake-resistant. The female then lays a clutch of 2–4 eggs, usually one each morning, in the male’s cavity. The pair shares egg-sitting duty.

Emerging 11 days later, the hatchling is featherless, blind and appears almost “raw.” Chicks within a relocation program will be banded when eight days old, when they weigh an average of 23 grams. Chicks remain in the nest for about 26 days, until they’re ready to fledge.

Both parents feed the chicks a variety of insects, a fresh bug about every five minutes, all day long. Parents continue to feed their chicks, even after they have fledged, for up to six months. Sometimes a fledgling from the previous year remains in the cluster to help the family.

In times of drought, bugs become harder to find. It’s a typical “brood reduction” survival mechanism for parents to feed only the healthiest chick. typically, about two-thirds of the hatchlings survive.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers grow to about 7 inches in length, with a wingspan of about 15 inches. The bird is named for a small red streak on each side of the black cap of the male only. This is used to determine the sex of a chick after about 12 days. Juvenile males display an obvious red patch; it is noticeable on adult males only when they are angry.

What threats may they see?

  • "Kleptoparasites” such as resident bluebirds, flying squirrels and owls, trying to steal their cavities
  • Rat snakes slithering into the nests, hungry for eggs and hatchlings
  • Drought and a shortage of bugs
  • Flooding rains and lightning strikes

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