Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
Black-backed Woodpecker Female
Arctic three-toed Woodpecker
40cm to 42cm
60g to 88g
Black-backed woodpeckers do indeed have a black back, but this is not their most remarkable feature. Males have a bright yellow cap, which stands out against their otherwise dark plumage. Facial markings include a bold white stripe across the cheek and a white chin and throat.
The breast and belly are white, with heavy black barring across the flanks and wingtips.
The bill is strong and stout, and slate gray in color. They have three toes on each foot (two facing forwards and one facing backward), and the feet and legs are dark gray. Their eyes are reddish brown.
Females lack the yellow crown feathers: their head is solid black, but otherwise, they share the same markings and coloring as males.
Juvenile black-backed woodpeckers are also similar to adults but have an overall duller plumage, with less vibrant black and a more washed-out whitish buff. Young birds have a blackish cap, with either a barely visible or entirely absent yellow patch.
Black-backed Woodpecker Female
Black-backed Woodpecker Male
A short clicking ‘kyik’ call can be heard all year round, as a contact call and a signal to indicate slight alarm. A distinctive ‘scream-rattle-snarl’ is heard during territorial conflicts, while a shorter rattling sound is made to summon a mate.
Wood-boring beetle larvae are the chief prey in a black-backed woodpecker’s diet, which they mostly find by stripping off layers of bark with their bills, rather than drilling into the wooden tree trunk itself.
Larvae of engraver beetles, white-spotted sawyer beetles, and mountain pine beetles are also widely eaten, as well as weevils, ants, and spiders. Plant matter, including wild berries and tree nuts, account for just over 10 percent of their diet.
Adult and larvae forms of wood-boring beetles and mountain pine beetles are fed to black-backed woodpecker chicks in the nest cavity by both parents. By 13 days post-hatching, prey is brought to the cavity entrance in order to prepare the young for fledging.
Young Black-backed Woodpecker at nest waiting for food
Boreal and coniferous forests are the primary natural habitat of black-backed woodpeckers. Important species are spruce, red fir, Douglas fir, mountain hemlock, and ponderosa pine. Black–backed woodpeckers are particularly known for their ability to thrive in areas that have suffered from extensive burning or wildfire damage.
They move into burned forests as they begin to regenerate and feast on the vast numbers of beetles that are present, themselves taking advantage of the newly available supply of decaying wood from dead trees. Such environments can sustain black-backed woodpeckers for around 7 to 8 years before they need to relocate in search of another swathe of charred forest.
A year-round resident in the northern regions of North America, the geographical distribution range of black-backed woodpeckers covers Canada, Alaska, and the northern United States. The species is present in central Alaska, throughout southern and central Canada, and southwards through the northern US Rockies.
To the north, its northernmost range extends from Alaska eastwards to Newfoundland and Labrador. Largely absent from the west coast, the range spreads through southeastern British Columbia, with scattered populations as far south as central California.
Black-backed woodpeckers play a key role in the ecosystems of forested landscapes recovering after fires. Such natural events are unpredictable and once areas are regenerated, they no longer provide suitable habitats, which means that the species’ population is constantly on the move.
In the United States, the highest concentrations are typically found in regions where forest fires are more common, including the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges of California, eastern and central areas of Washington, western and central Montana, and the Cascade Range and eastern Oregon.
Female Black-backed Woodpecker stripping the bark off a tree in pursuit of insects
Rarely seen in the open, and preferring to remain out of view, black-backed woodpecker sightings are considered a rarity. Their favored habitats of burned forest landscapes are not commonly disturbed by human activity, which explains the lack of extensive observations of behavior and habits.
States that regularly are affected by forest fires are among the prime locations for black-backed woodpecker sightings, for example in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
National parks including California’s Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic national parks, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, offer suitable habitats for sightings.
Although they are resident in forests across much of southern and central Canada, sightings of black-backed woodpeckers can never be guaranteed, due to the elusive nature of the species.
Forested national parks including Manitoba’s Riding National Park, Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, and Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park may offer the best chances of spotting one.
Black-backed Woodpecker perching on a tree trunk
The average lifespan of a black-backed woodpecker is estimated to be between 6 and 8 years. However, the oldest banded individual identified was recorded to be 4 years and 11 months. The age at first breeding is unknown.
Northern goshawks prey on adult black-backed woodpeckers, while eggs are known to be targeted by squirrels, martens, and occasionally black bears.
In Canada, black-backed woodpeckers are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention. Over the border, in the US, the species is included in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
These wildlife laws ensure that black-backed woodpeckers are safe from being killed, injured, captured, or sold for trade, and their eggs, young, and nests are not destroyed or damaged.
Populations of black-backed woodpeckers are stable, with increases witnessed over the last 40 years. They are classified globally as a species of least concern, and widespread post-fire landscapes have helped to increase their range.
Salvage and logging activities in burned forests is a factor that may influence their future survival, due to their reliance on the scorched vegetation and its associated wealth of insect life.
Female Black-backed Woodpecker in natural habitat
Black-backed woodpeckers excavate their own nest chambers in trunks or limbs of dead or dying trees, in particular pine, spruce, fir, quaking aspen, and paper birch. Cavities may also be drilled out in telegraph poles. Both sexes work to chisel out the hollow, which is then lined with wood chippings.
Nest construction usually begins in April, with May and June the typical months for laying to begin. One single clutch is raised per season, with incubation taking between 12 and 14 days. Males and females share incubation in turn, with males remaining alone in the nest overnight and alternating with females during the day.
Black-backed woodpecker eggs are white, unpatterned, and semi-glossy, measuring around 25 mm by 18 mm (0.9 in by 0.8 mm). A typical clutch contains from 2 to 6 eggs, although it’s more common for there to be 3 or 4.
A monogamous species, black-backed woodpeckers form long-lasting bonds with a mate and will typically raise young together in successive years.
Black-backed Woodpecker excavating nest cavity in burned area of a forest
Aggressive interactions occur between rival males early in the breeding season and usually take the form of hostile posturing, crest raising, and physical attacks. Both sexes display confrontational behavior and may attack intruders.
Males roost in the nest cavity until nestlings are almost ready to fledge. Females roost in cavities elsewhere, and once their role in nesting is complete, males will also seek overnight shelter in another roosting cavity they have excavated themselves.
Female Black-backed Woodpecker searching for food
No traditional migration occurs for black-backed woodpeckers, although occasional reports of irruptive behavior exist, where large numbers of the species suddenly show up in a spot where they are not normally widespread. This is prompted by the availability of wood-boring beetles.
Where resources run low, new foraging grounds must be found, which is why burned forests prove such a draw.
Black-backed woodpeckers are native to North America, and although the larger portion of their population is found across the border throughout southern Canada, parts of the western US do have a strong year-round presence of the species.
Black-backed Woodpecker perching on a burned out tree
The main prey of black-backed woodpeckers is the larvae of wood-boring beetles, so they thrive in habitats with concentrations of dead or dying trees.
Forested landscapes recovering after extensive fires are closely associated with the species, with black-backed woodpeckers quick to take advantage of the wide availability of insects among the decaying wood.
Coniferous forests are a favorite of black-backed woodpeckers, with a variety of different species used for nesting. These include Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock. Larch, aspen, and cedar may also be chosen.
Many of the trees in the most common habitats of black-backed woodpeckers have already sustained significant damage, particularly those that have been burned in wildfires, so their presence and excavation of nesting chambers won’t contribute a significant level of extra harm.
In some cases, the opposite is true, with the arrival of black-headed woodpeckers to areas that have been razed by flames bringing new life and being an important part of the woodland regeneration process.
Black-backed woodpeckers do not visit backyard feeders. They are able to meet all of their dietary requirements in the wild, particularly in burned forests and other wooded landscapes ravaged by fire.
In the aftermath of forest fires across the US, it has been noted that black-backed woodpeckers quickly colonize these burned expanses of woodland and thrive in the charred remains of trees.
Trees that are killed or damaged by fire offer an ideal nesting habitat for black-backed woodpeckers to carve out their cavities. Such areas also prove to be a magnet for wood-boring beetles to feast on the decaying trunks and branches of burned trees, which in turn leads to a booming food resource for woodpeckers.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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