Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
  |  Gorp.com
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
Deforestation and reforestation combine to cut the woodpecker's prime habitat (Stephen Maka)

Why We Love It:

Stewards of the old-growth pine forests of the Southeast, red-cockaded woodpeckers hunt for termites and other harmful insects and dig holes in trees that other forest creatures later use for homes. This small, black-and-white woodpecker gets its name from the red stripes—or "cockades"—running along the sides of its head. Listed as endangered since 1970, it has held on thanks to the efforts of the Audubon Society, the USFWS, and state organizations.

Where It's Happiest:

These birds live only in southern pine forests that are at least 80 years old. They prefer long-leaf pines for nesting and avoid densely clustered stands of trees. They nest mostly by carving out cavities in the trees. Most red-cockaded woodpeckers practice a "cooperative breeding system," living in groups of two to ten birds, with only one breeding pair. The non-breeding members, or "helpers," incubate eggs, forage for beetle larvae to feed the young, and defend the group's territory. Unlike some woodpeckers, they do not use sounds to find food, but rather probe tree cavities with their tongues in search of spiders, ants, cockroaches, and termites.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

Approximately 10,000 to 12,000 birds exist in 4,500 fragmented populations from Florida to Oklahoma. In the early 1800s, the Audubon Society described the birds as "abundant," and their range extended north to New Jersey, Maryland, and Missouri.

Who's to Blame:

Deforestation of old-growth trees in the Southeast has eliminated much of the area where red-cockaded woodpeckers can live. Further reforestation with new plants and trees, plus human development, has contributed to erase 99 percent of its habitat.

When It's Gone:

The USFWS calls the red-cockaded woodpecker a "keystone" species for southern old-growth pine forests. They estimate that up to 27 other vertebrates use the cavities these woodpeckers dig in trees, including birds and raccoons. "Where you have healthy red-cockaded woodpeckers, you have a healthy ecosystem," says USFWS Recovery Coordinator Ralph Costa.

Signs of Life:

Detailed management plans and the cooperation of state interests has stabilized woodpecker numbers. Annual conferences between states, environmental groups, U.S. wildlife agencies, and the Army's Corps of Engineers help to coordinate conservation efforts.


Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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