The adaptation of red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) to fire-maintained southern pine ecosystems has included the development of behaviors that permit the species to use living pines for their cavity trees. Their adaptation to pine ecosystems has also involved a major adjustment in the species' breeding system to cooperative breeding, probably in response to the extended time period required to excavate a completed cavity in a living pine and the relative rarity of completed cavities for nesting. The characteristics of live pines make them variable in their suitability as cavity trees, leading to the evolution of selection behavior among woodpeckers. Red-cockaded woodpeckers require a very special type of pine for their cavity tree. Potential cavity trees must be sufficiently old because only older pines have heartwood of sufficient diameter to physically house a woodpecker cavity without breaching the resin producing sapwood. Older pines also have a larger diameter of heartwood higher in the pine, permitting higher cavity placement, well away from frequent fires. Older pines also have a higher occurrence rate of red heart fungus (Phellinus pini), which decays the heartwood allowing cavity excavation to proceed more quickly. The potential cavity tree also needs to have relatively thin sapwood, which reduces the time the woodpecker must spend excavating through living xylem tissue that exudes sticky pine resin when pecked. Red-cockaded woodpeckers scale loose bark from the bole of their cavity trees and excavate resin wells above and below cavity entrances. These behaviors create a resin barrier that is very effective in deterring predation by rat snakes (Elaphe spp.). Thus, the ability of pines to produce adequate resin is also important to the woodpecker. Red-cockaded wood- peckers can detect the pine's ability to produce resin and select pines that are high producers. Higher yields of resin likely create better barriers against rat snakes. The socially dominant breeding male red-cockaded woodpecker selects the cavity tree that produces the most resin for its roost tree, which during spring becomes the group's nest tree. Our recent research suggests that red-cockaded woodpeckers also select pines with particular resin chemistries. High concentrations of diterpenes may increase resin viscosity, stickiness, irritability, or other factors that may be important for creating a barrier against rat snakes.
Conner, Richard N.; Rudolph, D. Craig; Saenz, Daniel; and Johnson, Robert H., "The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Cavity Tree: A Very Special Pine" (2004). Faculty Publications. 441.