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.
Female White-headed Woodpecker
White-headed Woodpecker perching on a log
Female White-headed Woodpecker resting on a log
21cm to 23cm
55g to 65g
White-headed woodpeckers are mostly glossy black, with a boldly contrasting white face, chin, throat, and forehead. Males have a red patch on the rear of the head, and apart from this, the only non-black part of their plumage is white patches on the outer wing, which are most visible in flight.
Females lack the red head patch but are otherwise identical to males. Both sexes have deep reddish-brown eyes, a short, sharp black bill, and gray feet and legs.
In juveniles, the black plumage is less vibrant and looks more washed out. On the crown of younger birds, a small faint patch of crimson may be visible.
White-headed Woodpecker Male
White-headed Woodpecker Female
White-headed woodpeckers are relatively small members of their family, similar in size to a hairy woodpeckers. Males and females are roughly the same size, although males may be marginally heavier.
White-headed woodpeckers’ calls are high-pitched and rapid, with a sharp pee-kik or pee-kik-kik commonly heard as a contact call. Longer rattling calls are also heard. Drumming is slower than in many other woodpecker species and is used between pairs as a form of communication while they are incubating.
White-headed Woodpecker drinking from a pool
Pine forests provide all of the dietary requirements of white-headed woodpeckers, with a wide range of conifer seeds and invertebrates that thrive in such environments. Insect prey includes ants, termites, beetles, and their larvae. They use their bills to flake off strips of bark and then probe using their elongated tongue.
Pine seeds are particularly important in spring, especially those of ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, and Coulter pine. Acrobatic maneuvers may be required, as they grip the cone and prise into the crevices to extract the seeds.
In winter and also during the height of the nestling period, backyard feeders offering suet or even nectar for hummingbirds may attract an occasional visitor. However, white-headed woodpeckers remain in their mountain landscapes and do not stray to anywhere highly urbanized.
Both parents bring food to nestlings, feeding them on a bolus of regurgitated insects and larvae, particularly ants and bark beetle larvae. Around 7 days before fledging, adult birds bring food to the cavity, but encourage young to feed from the chamber opening rather than going inside themselves, with items of prey gradually increasing in size to individual insects, caterpillars, and larvae.
Female White-headed Woodpecker feeding on the forest ground
White-headed woodpeckers have very specific habitat demands, and require an environment rich in conifers and with mountainous terrain, at elevations of between 900 m and 3000 m (3000 ft to 10,000 ft) above sea level.
Mature pine forests are favored, with dense plantations of ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir, red fir, Douglas fir, and California black oak. Tree species with smaller cones, for example, lodgepole pine, are not used as nesting sites.
White-headed woodpeckers are found in montane forests from south-central British Columbia, south through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and south into northern, central, and southern California. Small populations are present in western Nevada and western Idaho.
Populations of white-headed woodpeckers become more concentrated further south into their range, with California home to the highest numbers. Populations are centered on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and Cascade Ranges.
With a population of only around 240,000 individuals, white-headed woodpeckers are one of the rarest North America woodpeckers, and their range is limited to mountainous pine forests, which are not the most inviting habitats for potential sightings.
California offers the highest densities per hectare, and in parts of the San Gabriel Mountains, they are far more common than in other locations further north.
White-headed woodpeckers are only found in a limited number of locations in the western US, with California offering the best chances of sightings. Although still a reasonably rare species, the Sierra Nevada and San Gabriel Mountains are home to higher-than-average concentrations.
White-headed woodpeckers require a specialized habitat of montane pine forests and are only found in a very small region of Canada.
Canada’s population is limited to around 10 breeding pairs annually, found in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, in the south-central region of the province.
Female White-headed Woodpecker on a tree trunk
The oldest recorded white-headed woodpecker, identified through a banding scheme, was at least 9 years and 7 months old. Breeding can occur from one year old, although successful breeding maybe later in males.
Cooper’s hawks, northern goshawks, and American kestrels are among the most notable predators of white-headed woodpeckers. Nests may also be raided by weasels and squirrels.
White-headed woodpeckers and their eggs and young are protected in the US under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. In Canada, similar protection is offered by the National Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1994 as well as at a local level by the British Columbia Wildlife Act.
Currently listed as a species of least concern and not considered globally threatened, the white-headed woodpecker is rated ‘Imperiled’ in Idaho and ‘Endangered’ in Canada according to the Species at Risk Act.
Timber harvesting in pine forests has led to a contraction of habitats in many parts of the species’ range, and logging work after forest fires has also had a negative impact on available nesting sites.
White-headed Woodpecker perching on a fallen log
Nest chambers are drilled out in dead or partially dead conifers, in particular ponderosa pine and red fir. White-headed woodpeckers will frequently use low-level spots, including tree stumps and fallen logs, and chisel out their own nests, which can take up to 4 weeks. Artificial structures, including crevices in buildings and utility poles, may also be used.
Nest excavation usually occurs in May, with eggs following within 5 days of the completion of the chamber. Incubation takes between 11 and 14 days, with males and females sharing the task. Males always incubate overnight, and remain in the nest cavity at night until all the chicks have fledged.
White-headed woodpeckers lay white, glossy eggs, which may become speckled with dirt and grime as incubation progresses. A typical clutch contains 4 to 5 eggs, which measure 24 mm by 18 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in).
Pairs form early in the spring and then remain together all year round. They are monogamous during the breeding season and are strongly bonded, drumming to each other during the nesting period from inside and outside the nest chamber. There is no information available about the duration of these bonds from one season to the next.
Female White-headed Woodpecker perched on top of a rock
It is rare for any confrontations between white-headed woodpeckers to escalate to a physical level, although some drumming, chasing, and hostile posturing displays may be observed, particularly early in the breeding season and close to the nest cavity.
During the breeding season, the male white-headed woodpecker roosts overnight in the nesting cavity until the young fledge. Roosting cavities are used all through the winter by individuals, and many white-headed woodpeckers continue to roost in an excavated chamber throughout the year, although roosting spots in crevices and against tree trunks may also be used.
White-headed Woodpecker by the edge of a pool
Although white-headed woodpeckers are generally nonmigratory, some wandering may occur after the breeding season, with individual birds dispersing a short distance from the nest site. Most birds remain in their territories all year round and return to the same breeding spots year after year.
The vast majority of the global population of white-headed woodpeckers are native to the US, with only around 10 breeding pairs crossing the border into Canada. No populations are present south of California, and no migration occurs, with the breeding and wintering grounds of all white-headed woodpeckers within the US and Canada.
White-headed Woodpecker resting on the rocks
Without the presence of well-established pine trees with plenty of large cones, you’d stand zero chance of attracting a white-headed woodpecker, as this food resource trumps everything.
Coniferous forests are the prime location for white-headed woodpeckers to nest and forage for their favorite pine seeds. Ponderosa pine is the preferred species, and sugar pine, Douglas fir, white fir, and incense cedar.
White-headed woodpeckers frequently make their nest cavities in logs or fallen trees that have already died or been damaged to the point where they are no longer viable or healthy. In these cases, any harm caused by drilling is negative as the tree has already died.
Holes drilled by woodpeckers in tree trunks as cavities and in search of insects are usually not major enough to cause extensive damage, although they may contribute to weakening an already dying tree.
In residential areas that lie within mountain pine forests, white-headed woodpeckers may occasionally visit a backyard feeder for suet. They usually gain all their nutritional requirements from pine cones and seeds, without needing to look for supplementary food sources.
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.
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 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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