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.
Female Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker feeding on a cactus skeleton
Female Gila Woodpecker in natural habitat
Gila Woodpecker outside nest hole
22cm to 25cm
40cm to 43cm
50g to 80g
Gila Woodpeckers are attractive birds with bold, contrasting plumage. Unlike most species in their family, they are not predominantly black and white.
Adult Gila Woodpeckers have uniform tan-brown underparts, heads, and necks. Their wings and back are black with conspicuous white barring. Prominent white markings are visible on the ends of each wing in flight. Their bill and eyes are black, and their legs and feet are dark blueish or greenish.
Females are very similar to males, although they have all-brown heads, whereas males have a small but distinct red crown. Juveniles are similar to adults, although generally duller.
You’re unlikely to confuse the Gila Woodpecker for any other species in Arizona, but their range does overlap with the Golden-fronted Woodpecker (M. aurifrons) in Central Mexico. That species has orange and yellow head markings and paler grayish underparts. Flickers (Colaptes spp.) have a similar color but are much larger and have spotted underparts, brown backs, and colorful wings in flight.
Gila Woodpecker Male
Gila Woodpecker Female
Gila Woodpeckers are a medium-sized species similar in size to the widespread Hairy Woodpecker.
Most adults measure 8 to 10 inches or 22 to 25 centimeters long. Males and females are similar in size.
Their weight ranges between about 1¾ and 2¾ ounces or 50 to 80 grams.
Adults have a 16 to 17-inch wingspan (40 - 43 cm).
Gila Woodpecker sitting on a wooden post
Gila Woodpeckers are noisy birds that call and drum to communicate. Typical calls by both males and females include repeated yipping and a rolling ‘churr-churr-churr.’
Gila Woodpecker calling from the trees
Gila Woodpeckers are omnivores that eat a variety of plant and animal foods, including:
Gila Woodpecker chicks eat similar foods to their parents, including insects and fruits. The young are ready to leave the nest after about a month but will be fed by their parents for much longer.
Gila Woodpecker at the nest with food for its young
Gila Woodpeckers are desert birds. They are closely associated with the giant saguaro cactus but also visit suburban areas and wooded water courses.
Gila Woodpeckers are restricted to North America. Most of their range falls within western Mexico, although they also occur in the Southwest of the United States. They are widespread in Southern Arizona and occur marginally in neighboring California and New Mexico.
Gila Woodpeckers are most at home among the spines of the Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), a giant species that can reach 40 feet tall. They will also forage among other trees and plants or catch prey down on the ground.
Gila Woodpeckers are common in suitable habitats, although they have a very restricted range in the United States.
Arizona is the best place to see Gila Woodpeckers in the United States. The Saguaro National Park is a great place to spot them, although they are widespread in the Sonoran Desert.
Female Gila Woodpecker on cactus plant feeding on the nectar
Gila Woodpeckers can live for about ten years in captivity. However, the oldest wild specimen on record lived for nearly eight years.
Little is known about the Gila Woodpecker’s predators. However, they are probably vulnerable to many desert carnivores, including birds of prey like hawks and owls, mammals like coyotes, and larger snakes.
Gila Woodpeckers are federally protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Gila Woodpeckers are not endangered as a species. Their population shows a stable trend, and they are assessed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.
Gila Woodpecker searching for food on a tree trunk
Gila Woodpeckers typically nest in the stem of the saguaro cactus, although they will also use other species like mesquites (Prosopis) and cottonwoods (Populus). A paired male and female will work together to excavate a foot-long chamber with a two-inch entrance hole, usually high above the ground.
Gila Woodpeckers breed in the spring and summer. Their nesting season runs from April to August, and pairs may have a second or even third brood in good years.
Gila Woodpeckers lay three to six plain white eggs, each measuring about an inch long and three-quarters of an inch across (25 x 19 mm).
Gila Woodpecker feeding young bird at the nest
Gila Woodpeckers are highly aggressive when nesting and do not tolerate other birds near their nest. Males are particularly protective and will chase and attack many other species of birds, as well as their own kind.
Gila Woodpeckers roost in cavities that they excavate in cacti and trees.
Gila Woodpecker leaving the nest in a Saguaro cactus
Gila Woodpeckers are non-migratory, although some birds make short seasonal movements in the winter. You can usually find these birds in suitable habitats at any time of the year.
Gila Woodpeckers are native to the United States, although most of their range lies to the south in Mexico.
Four Gila Woodpeckers, male and female, feeding on seeds and suet in a garden
Gila Woodpeckers are attracted to desert areas with giant cacti that provide nesting and feeding habitat. Birdwatchers from towns and suburbs in their natural range can also encourage these birds by hanging out bird feeders or providing fresh water in a shallow bird bath.
Trees are often scarce in their natural habitat, so Gila Woodpeckers are usually found around the massive saguaro cactus. However, they also forage and nest in mesquite trees, cottonwoods, and various other species in suburban areas.
Gila Woodpeckers do not usually cause serious damage to trees. In fact, these birds benefit the saguaro cactus by eating its fruits and spreading the seeds.
Gila Woodpeckers will visit birdfeeders in their range. They will take corn and suet and even enjoy the occasional drink of nectar.
Gila Woodpeckers are known to have a sweet tooth, and they often visit hummingbird nectar feeders with designs that they can cling to.
Gila Woodpeckers are from the Melanerpes genus, a medium-sized group with other well-known species like the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Flickers are similar-looking but unrelated birds from the Colaptes genus.
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.
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.
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 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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