The breeding system of the red-cockaded woodpecker is described based on data collected over six years from a population of 500 marked individuals in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Male-female pairs were the most common social unit (59%), but 30% of social units contained one or more adult helpers, and 11% consisted of solitary males. Helpers were almost exclusively male: 27% of males remained in their natal group as helpers for at least one year, whereas only four (1%) females did.

Most breeding females remained as breeders in the same group from one year to the next (56%), but a surprising number (12%) moved to another group. Many movements were related to incest avoidance or mate death, but 39% involved deserting a mate, usually following successful reproduction. We suggest that females sometimes are forced from groups by immigrants or other group members. The median distance of movements by adult females was only 1.3 km. In contrast to females, no breeding males switched groups. Survival of both breeding (76%) and helper (80%) males was higher than that of breeding females (69%).

Males exhibited two distinct life-history strategies. Some remained as helpers on their natal territory for one or more years, and became breeders by inheriting breeding status in the natal group (17% per year) or by replacing a deceased breeder in a nearby group (13% per year, median distance moved 1.0 km). Other males dispersed from their natal group permanently during their first year. Some of these males were floaters at age one year, others were solitary, and a few became helpers in a non-natal group, but many were breeders. In contrast to males that first functioned as helpers, those that dispersed after fledging moved long distances (median dispersal distance 4.5 km), longer even than dispersing female fledglings moved (median distance 3.2 km).

The habitat saturation model of the evolution of cooperative breeding is based on selection between the two life-history strategies exhibited by male red-cockaded woodpeckers. The model therefore may be tested directly with this species. Another indication that this model is appropriate for this species is the existence of a resource (cavity trees) that might provide an ecological basis for habitat saturation.