RCWs tend to mate for life in permanent territories, and their young often stay around for a year or two to support the next year’s chicks.
Romance and intrigue as documented in our series Knock on Wood have surrounded the effort to reestablish a sustainable breeding population of red-cockaded woodpeckers over the last five years at The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve. But success is close, with breeding pairs established. And additional breeding pairs being transported to the preserve each year, making the project goal for the reintroduction on the preserve within sight.
The elusive RCW has been forced to the brink of extinction, and was extirpated, or locally extinct, at The Disney Wilderness Preserve for decades. But thanks to 20 years of careful restoration and management of the preserve’s longleaf pine habitat, it appears able to once again support the species. Vegetation is lush and very pretty due to controlled burns conducted by the Conservancy.
The rare birds are carried in boxes as juveniles from North Florida or Georgia and we carefully provide them with housing and possible mates.
The translocation program is exact: RCWs are carefully captured under strict federal rules from a healthy population and quickly transferred to their new site where they again receive careful handling. Longleaf pine trees pre-prepared with man-made cavities are climbed by biologists and the birds are loaded in during the night. The nest hole is covered with a cloth and a draw string leads down to the forest floor. At sunrise all the cavities are simultaneously opened allowing the birds to immediately see potential mates.
More than just a fascinating bird, the RCW 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.
Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) season lasts from May through July in Florida. The female selects her mate and 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, and made snake-resistant by rivets of sticky tree sap on the outside. The female then lays a clutch of two to four eggs, usually one each morning, in the male’s cavity. The two share egg-sitting duty.
RCW eggs hatch after 11 days. When a hatchling emerges, it is featherless, blind and appears almost “raw”. Chicks within a relocation program will be banded when eight days old, at which time they will weigh an average of 23 grams. Chicks remain in the nest for about 26 days until ready to fledge.
Chicks are fed a variety of insects constantly by both parents. Each wants 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. More typically, about two-thirds of the hatchlings survive.
RCWs grow to about seven 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?
• “Klepto-parasites” such as resident bluebirds, flying squirrels and owls trying to steal their cavities
• Rat snakes slithering into the nests with an appetite for eggs and hatchlings
• Drought and a shortage of dinner-table bugs
• Flooding rains and lightning strikes
• The greatest challenge of all: a fledgling’s leap into the unknown.
Thanks for your interest! You can help support our RCW population with a safe and secure online gift.