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.
Nuttall's Woodpecker Female
Nuttall's Woodpecker perching under a canopy of oak trees
Female Nuttall's Woodpecker foraging for insects
16cm to 18cm
33cm to 41cm
30g to 45g
Nuttall’s woodpeckers are mainly black and white, with a red cap on the rear of the head in males. Facial markings include a black forehead, speckled with white, black cheeks with white and black stripes below, and a white chin, throat, and breast. Above the bill, white nasal tufts can be seen.
The back of the neck is solid black, above distinctive narrow black and white barring down the back. Wings are heavily barred with white markings and the tail has white outer feathers. The flanks are white, dotted with black spots, which are also present on the sides of the upper breast.
In adult Nuttall’s woodpeckers, the bill is gray and eyes are dark reddish, and feet and legs are a dark olive-gray.
Nuttall’s woodpeckers may be confused in the field with other similar species including the downy and ladder-backed woodpeckers, and occasionally where there are overlaps in range and both species are present, hybridization may occur.
Overall very similar to males, female Nuttall’s woodpeckers lack any bright red coloring, with a solid black cap. A faint reddish wash may be visible on the heads of some females. Aside from this key distinguishing feature, females and males are alike, sharing the same black and white barred and speckled markings.
Juvenile males have a prominent reddish-orange patch on the forecrown, marked with white speckling. On reaching maturity, this patch has receded and is replaced by black and white speckling at the front, with red only present towards the rear of the head. Young birds have grayish underparts and the white markings on their back and wings are brighter than those of adult birds.
Nuttall's Woodpecker Male
Nuttall's Woodpecker Female
One of North America’s smaller woodpecker species, the Nuttall’s woodpecker is larger than a downy woodpecker. Compared to other familiar backyard birds, it would slot in between the smaller sparrow and the larger robin in terms of size. Both sexes are the same size, falling in the range below:
Contact calls that are regularly heard when announcing their arrival at a feeding site or active nest include a loud metallic rattle. A short, sharp ‘pik’ call is used in communication with a mate, as well as with other individual birds.
Female Nuttall's Woodpecker arriving at her nest
The chief element of a Nuttall’s woodpecker’s diet is invertebrates, especially beetles (wood borers and click beetles), and their larvae, with caterpillars, ants, and bugs also important. Insects are caught by probing and tapping into the bark, as well as gleaned from leaves and the surface of the trunk and branches.
Nuts, seeds, fruits, and berries – blackberries, elderberries, and the seeds of poison oaks – are also eaten, particularly in winter months. Despite a preference for living in oak woodlands, acorns are relatively unimportant in their diet.
The initial diet of Nuttall’s woodpecker hatchlings comprises larvae and caterpillars, with insects introduced as they mature. Parental feeding continues for around 2 weeks after young Nuttall’s woodpeckers fledge.
Nuttall's Woodpecker exploring in the berry tree
Oak woodlands are the preferred habitat of Nuttall’s woodpeckers, particularly in locations near streams and rivers, although any land with tree cover may also be considered. Recently, the species has become more widespread in suburban areas and has adapted well to surviving in populated environments.
Nuttall’s woodpeckers are native to the westernmost regions of California, from near the northern border with Oregon, southwards through the western portion of the state, and extending just across the Mexican border into a tiny expanse of northwestern Baja California.
Apart from an isolated population in the extreme northwestern corner of the Mexican state of Baja California, all Nuttall’s woodpeckers live in the US state of California. Regions with the highest recorded figures of the species include the Coastal Mountains region and El Dorado, Monterey, and Sutter counties.
Within their western Californian range, Nuttall’s woodpeckers are not uncommon, although sightings outside of this region are practically non-existent. Some overlap does occur with the range of the very similar ladder-backed woodpecker, which is far more numerous. The entire population of Nuttall’s woodpeckers is estimated at around 650,000.
California is the only US location in which Nuttall’s woodpeckers are established, with only the rarest accounts of individual vagrant birds in other states. Within California, populations are concentrated in the west of the state, with the woodlands of the Coastal Range home to the largest share.
Female Nuttall's Woodpecker resting on top of a dried out weed
Nuttall’s woodpeckers breed for the first time at the age of one. On average they are thought to live for between four and seven years, with the oldest recorded individual reaching 8 years 9 months.
Little conclusive evidence exists about the kind of predators that are the biggest threat to Nuttall’s woodpeckers. Snakes are believed to raid their nest cavities for unhatched eggs.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 safeguards Nuttall’s woodpeckers against a number of potentially damaging and harmful human activities, including being killed, injured, and captured for sale. The Act also protects their eggs, nest site, and young from being destroyed.
Rated a species of least concern, there are no immediate threats to the future survival or stability of the global population of Nuttall’s woodpeckers.
Nuttall's Woodpecker sitting on a branch in natural habitat
Nuttall’s woodpeckers nest in cavities they excavate themselves in soft wood, such as dead or decaying tree trunks, around 5 m (16 ft) above ground level. Males do the majority of the chiseling work with minimal assistance from the female.
Pairs form between January and March, and work begins on the earliest nest cavity excavations in late March. Eggs are laid from late March onwards, although April and May are the peak laying months. Both parents share incubation, which lasts for 14 days, with overnight brooding always by the male.
A typical clutch laid by a Nuttall’s woodpecker consists of between 2 and 6 eggs, with 4 to 5 eggs most common. Eggs are creamy white in color, with no patterning on the shell, and measure 22 mm by 17 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in).
Nuttall’s woodpeckers are monogamous during the breeding season, pairing up early in the year. Once young have fledged and become independent, mates are no longer strongly bonded but remain loosely associated until the following breeding season.
It’s unknown how many pairs reunite the following year, although as no winter movement to alternative territories takes place, it is not especially unusual for a former pair to breed together again in the future.
Nuttall's Woodpecker excavating his nest
Drumming contests between rival Nuttall’s woodpeckers have been known to quickly escalate into physical interactions, particularly evident between males from territories alongside each other. Confrontations can include aggressive posturing, wing spreading, and crest raising, leading to chasing and attacking.
While nesting, males remain in the nest cavity overnight, initially while incubating the eggs and for the first 10 days after hatchlings emerge. Females roost in cavities away from the nest site. Once breeding is complete, males also roost singly in cavities.
Nuttall's Woodpecker foraging on a tree trunk
Nuttall’s woodpeckers are non-migratory and remain in their native territories all year round. They rarely stray outside of western California, although reports of vagrant individuals in Oregon and Nevada have been recorded on rare occasions.
Almost the entire global population of Nuttall’s woodpeckers are resident in the US state of California, where they are year-round residents. A small number are present in the area immediately across the Mexican border, in northwestern Baja California.
Nuttall's Woodpecker resting on a branch
Mature oak trees are a key factor in attracting Nuttall’s woodpeckers, as the species does well in environments where this type of tree is dominant. Hanging suet feeders as well as peanuts supplied on tray feeders may help to entice a hungry Nuttall’s woodpecker to your yard as winter approaches.
Although they do not depend on acorns as a major element of their diet, Nuttall’s woodpeckers thrive in oak woodlands. Nests are built in soft decaying wood, with other common tree choices including cottonwood, willow, and sycamore.
Nuttall’s woodpeckers drill out a nesting cavity in the soft wood of a tree that is already dead or dying, so are usually not the instigator of any damage. They only use a cavity once, so their handiwork benefits many other secondary cavity-nesting species that do not have the ability to excavate their own nests.
Wood-boring beetles are one of the primary prey of Nuttall’s woodpeckers. With the presence of the woodpeckers, insect populations are kept controlled and the ecosystem remains balanced.
Despite being naturally at home in woodland settings, Nuttall’s woodpeckers have become more widespread in suburban areas in recent years and are no strangers to backyard feeders. When visiting gardens, they are particularly partial to suet enriched with dried insects.
From a distance, downy woodpeckers and Nuttall’s woodpeckers look incredibly similar, but on closer inspection, there are some notable differences. The bill of a downy woodpecker is much shorter. Nuttall’s woodpeckers have a more extensive red crown; in downy woodpeckers, red is limited to a small patch on the rear of the head.
Black-and-white barring is an identifying feature on the back of a Nuttall’s woodpecker, ending in a solid black patch on the nape. In downy woodpeckers, this is replaced by a white streak in the center of the back, with no prominent barring.
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.
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 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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