Back and wings with a black and white ladder pattern. Black cap and white patch on the cheek. Black bill. Belly and breast white, with black spots on the outer breast. Males have a small red tuft behind the eye which is difficult to see. These are small woodpeckers, 22 cm (8.5 in) from beak tip to tail tip.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker has an uncommon social system known as cooperative breeding. The birds live as family groups of 2 - 5 individuals. The breeding pair is often accompanied by offspring from a previous year, known as "helpers," which assist their parents in many nesting activities. Breeding season lasts from mid-April to late July. Favored habitat is open, mature pine forest. The nest is built in the breeding male's roost cavity, typically excavated 10-13 m ( 30-40 ft) above ground in pines that are very old (usually more than 80 years). The breeding female lays 2-5 (average, 3) glossy white eggs. Incubation lasts 10 days and is performed by the parents and sometimes by helpers. Parents and helpers feed the nestlings, which fledge 26-29 days after hatching.
Suitable habitat is very specific for these birds. They inhabit old pine forests with open understory maintained by frequent, natural lightening fires. The home range of each family group includes a cluster of cavity trees. Cavity trees of this species always have a cavity entrance in which the edges of the hole are thickly coated with pine sap or resin. The woodpeckers peck holes around the cavity entrance to release the sticky resin, which helps deter predators such as rat snakes from invading the nest. Family groups are highly social and forage closely together on the upper branches and trunks of pines for ants, beetles, and other insects.
Populations and suitable habitat are fragmented throughout southern Georgia and the rest of the southeastern United States.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker has been listed as an Endangered Species by the U.S. Department of the Interior since 1968. Efforts to manage population viability on federal lands were started in 1985.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker may be confused with other small black and white woodpeckers in the southeastern United States. The Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker both have white backs rather than the black and white ladder found on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Another similar bird, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a red forehead and white patches on its wings and rump which are not present in the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.