Although a Gila Woodpecker perched on a saguaro cactus is a familiar sight in Arizona, this species has a wider range than the saguaro. Large trees can also be excavated for Gila Woodpecker nest cavities.
Gila Woodpeckers are known to be very aggressive when defending their territories. Decoy woodpeckers are readily attacked, and males are generally more aggressive than females.
On this page
Description of the Gila Woodpecker
The Gila Woodpecker has boldly barred black and white upperparts and wings, a brownish head and breast, and a barred rump.
Males have a red crown patch. Length: 9 in. Wingspan: 16 in.
Females have a uniformly brown head.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are similar to adult females.
Gila Woodpeckers are found in the Sonoran Desert, desert washes, and cottonwood-lined rivers.
Primarily insects, cactus fruits, berries, and sometimes small lizards or young birds.
The Gila Woodpecker forages on both tree trunks and large cacti, but also on the ground.
Gila Woodpeckers are found primarily in Mexico and southern Arizona. The population appears to be stable.
Gila Woodpecker excavations in saguaro cacti provide many other species of birds with nest cavities.
The commonly heard call is an emphatic “querrrr”, but series of “weet weet weet weet” notes is also given regularly.
The Gilded Flicker has spots on the chest and sides, dark “V” on the chest.
The Northern Flicker has a spotted chest and black “V” on the chest.
The nest is placed in a cavity in a large cactus or tree, usually 8-30 feet high.
Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days, and while it is not well known when the young leave the nest, it is probably at about 28 days.
Bent Life History of the Gila Woodpecker
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Gila Woodpecker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CENTURUS UROPYGIALIS UROPYGIALIS Baird
In the desert regions of our southwestern borders, this gay little woodpecker is one of the commonest, noisiest, and most conspicuous birds, always much in evidence, and always seeming to protest, in whining tones, the int.rusion of strangers. Its center of abundance seems to be on the great desert mesas of southern Arizona, where the infertile soil is scantily covered with a scattered growth of creosote bushes, low mesquites, an occasional cholla or barrel cactus and dotted with single specimens or little groups of the giant cactus, or saguaro. But it is also common in the river bottoms, covered with a heavier growth of mesquite, and in the canyons of the foothills among the cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores. It ranges from an elevation of 2,500 feet. on the mesas up to 4,000, or even 4,500, feet in the canyons and foothills.
In this region, it is a dominant species and a very useful neighbor, even if unintentionally, for the many species of birds and small mammals for which it provides homes. M. French Gilman (1915) puts it very well as follows:
Were It not for the Gila woodpecker (Centurua uropygiaus) what would become of the several species of birds that use already prepared cavities for their domiciles? In some cases these tenants do not even await the pleasure of the excavators, but take forcible possession. In holes excavated by Gila woodpeckers there may regularly be found nesting the elf owl, ferruginous pigmy owl, asli-throated flycatcher, and Arizona crested flycatcher. Occasionally a cactus wren makes use of the handy hollow, and once I saw one occupied by a Lucy warbler. A big “rough-neck” scaly lizard frequents the holes when not too high in the cactus, and in two holes in willow trees I found snakes. It is not pleasant to insert one’s hand and have a big lizard or snake crawl up the arm to escape. Rats and mice are sometimes found in the deserted holes, especially if the tree be much decayed and with cracks and hollows connecting holes at different heights in the tree or branch. So these woodpeckers may be considered among the class of Innocent or unintentional benefactors.
In addition to the species mentioned by Mr. Gilman above, we found saguaro screech owls, desert sparrow hawks, and western martins nesting in the old holes made by woodpeckers. Some of these holes were doubtless made by Mearns’s gilded flickers, perhaps those that were used by the larger species, as this woodpecker is fairly common in the same region and nests regularly in the saguaros. These old holes make ideal nesting sites, for the sap of the cactus hardens around the excavations, making them fairly permanent nesting boxes; I have seen these gourd-shaped pockets still persisting in fallen saguaros, where the pulp had all rotted away, leaving only the skeleton ribs of the dead giant.
Nesting: While collecting with the late Frank C. Willard in southern Arizona in 1922, we examined seven occupied nests of the Gila woodpecker. The first of these was found on May 17, at Fairbank, in the valley of the San Pedro River; the nest was a cavity 15 iiiches deep in a dead branch of a cottonwood, 15 feet above ground. Five days, May 19 to 23, were spent. in Pima County, in the vicinity of Tucson, between the mesquite forest in the valley of the Santa Cruz River and the southern end of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Two nests were found in the mesquite forest on May 19, both in mesquite trees, one 20 and one 25 feet from the ground; one contained only a single fresh egg and the other held a brood of young. We had an interesting experience here the next day. While crossing the forest, I saw a Gila woodpecker fly out from what I supposed was its nesting hole, about 15 feet up in a mesquite stub; the bird made such a great fuss about it that I felt sure that we had a set of woodpecker’s eggs within easy reach, and I called Mr. Willard to investigate it. He climbed the stub and chopped out the hole, while the woodpecker was flying about, scolding us and showing the greatest concern. But, much to our surprise, he pulled out an elf owl and three unmistakable elf owl’s eggs. I killed the owl and shot the woodpecker, which still seemed much interested; and, on skinning and sexing both specimens, I found that the woodpecker was a male and the owl a female. We were naturally much puzzled to figure out the relationship between the two birds and their interest in the nest. But, since reading Mr. Gilman’s remarks, quoted above, that sometimes the woodpecker’s tenants “do not even await the pleasure of the excavators, but take forcible possession,” it has occurred to me that probably this was a case in point. The owl may have appropriated the finished burrow of the woodpecker, and the latter was trying to evict an unwelcome tenant.
The remaining four nests found in this vicinity, and one found by Mr. Willard on June 11, were all in saguaros on the desert mesa; the heights from the ground varied from 16 to 20 feet; and the cavities varied in depths from 15 to 20 inches; there was one set of five eggs, two nests held four and one three eggs; and in one nest were two young and an addled egg.
Referring to the nesting habits of this woodpecker in the vicinity of the Gila River, in Arizona, Mr. Gilman (1915) writes:
Nesting sites in this locality are restricted to giant cactus (CCrCus giganteas), cottonwood and willow, as they are the only suitable material for a nest excavation. More nests are found in the giant cactus, as these plants are more numerous than the others, and more “peckable,” though the willows and cottonwoods along the river and the canals are well patronized when sufficiently decayed. Of the nests I examined I should say that fifty per cent were in the cactus, and the rest equally divided between the other trees mentioned. * * *
As to the size of the holes in the cactus as compared with those in cottonwood and willow, I found no appreciable difference. I expected the holes in the cactus to average a little larger owing to possible greater ease in excavating lint the difference was too slight to be sure of in measuring. Of eighteen holes measured, the average diameter was iMP inches; the largest was 2.25 inches and the smallest 1.87 inches. The deepest hole was 16 hiches, with the en trance 2 inches in diameter. The shallowest one was 9 incItes, with entrance a little less than 2 inches in diameter. The average depth of holes aicasured was a little mere than 12 inches. Many of the holes were not exactly circular, there being a difference of from ‘A to nearly 1/2 inch between the long and short diameter if it be allowable to use the term in that way. Usually the nest hole runs straight in for a short distance before turning downward, the distance seemingly depending en the texture of the wood. In one case the hole went straight hack for nine inches before turning downward. It was in a big cottonwood stump, and the bird excavated horizontally until decayed wood was reached, when the hole turned downward. This was an extreme case, as the depth horizontally is usually about three inches. In the giant cactus it varies according to the diameter of the trunk, the smaller the trunk the less distance before turning downward. * * *
The same nest hole is used more than one season, both in cactus and other locations. In 1913 I found a nest in a big cottonwood stump containing young. The next year it had young again, and I cut into it to measure the hole and count them.
Frank C. Willard (1912) says: “I think it is their habit to dig fresh holes after raising their brood of young. These fresh holes are not occupied that year but are made use of the next year when the sap has had a chance to dry and form the hard lining which coats the inside of all the cavities. I have found btmt one fresh hole occupied as a nest.” Bendire (1895) also says that “most of their nesting sites are used for several years in succession; in fact, I doubt very much if a freshly excavated hole in a giant cactus is fit to nest in the same season. Both sexes assist in excavating the nesting site.”
In the heavily incrusted nest cavity in a giant cactus, the eggs lie on the bare, hard floor of th~ Ilest, there being no chips to furnish a soft bed.
In addition to the trees melitioned above, the Gila woodpecker has been found nesting more rarely in oaks and palo-verdes.
Eggs: The Gila woodpecker lays three to five eggs, three or four being much oftener found than five. The eggs are pure white and not very glossy when fresh, but sometimes quite glossy when heavily incubated; they vary from ovate to elliptical-ovate and are sometimes quite pointed. The measurements of 52 eggs average 25.14 by 18.56 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.43 by 18.80, 26.6 by 20.1, 22.86 by 17.27, and 23.9 by 16.6 millimeters.
Young: Incubation is said to last about two weeks, and is probably shared by both parents. Mr. Gilman (1915) writes:
It is not easy to determine just what food the young in the nest are given, but insects play a prominent part, as I have seen them frequently carried to the young. Fruit is also used, as I watched one parent carry ripe Lycium berries severai times to the nest; after emerging from the hole she would halt at the entrance each time and “lick her chops.” * ï *
The young are fed by the parents for a long time after leaving the nest, and they are regular little beggars. One pair stayed around our house for several months, and became quite tame. They were missed during the breeding season but soon came hack with three youngsters to share the good things found on the bird tables in the yard. The young, though as large as their parents, would flutter their wings and sit with open beak as though the old ones told them to “open yopr mouth and shut your eyes,” etc. The old ones would try to get them to eat watermelon placed on the tabks, but the babies would not be shown; the parents had to put it in their mouths. They followed the parents from perch to perch, begging for food until I expected to see them chastised. The pair in question stayed with the three juvenals until they had them broken to eat for themselves, and then left. After a proper Interval they came hack with two more young ones, thus indicating that a second brood Is sometimes raised. The abundant supply of food. may have been a determining factor in the number of broods raised.
Plumages: The nestlings are naked and blind at first but become fully clothed in the juvenal plumage before leaving the nest. The young male, in juvenal plumage, is much like the adult male, but the colors are generally paler, the head and under parts grayer, the barring on the upper parts less distinct, and the white bars are suffused with brownish buff; the red patch on the crown is smaller and often consists of only a few red feathers; and the bill is somewhat smaller and weaker. The young female is like the young male but has no red on the head. I have been unable to trace the postjuvenal molt, but young birds in the following spring are apparently like the adults. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August, September, and October.
Food: Major Bendire (1895) says: “Its food consists of insects of various kinds, such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and larv~, and in season largely on the sweet, fig-like fruit of the sahuaras, the giant cactus, and also, to a considerable extent, on the viscous berries of a species of mistletoe which is commonly found on most of the larger cottonwoods, oaks, and mesquite trees in these regions. These sticky, whitish-looking berries are a favorite food of many Arizona birds.”
Mr. Gilman (1915) writes:
The food of this woodpecker Is varied, nearly everything being grist that comes to his mill. He pecks around decayed and dying trees as well as green ones, and presumably get the insects usually found and eaten by such birds. The giant cactus is pecked into very frequently, and I believe some of the pulp Is eaten. The small punctures made are not enlarged, and in some cases quite an area is bitten Into. The fruit of the giant cactus is eaten as long as It lasts, and the berries of the Lycium are also freely eaten. The Gila woodpecker frequents corn fields, and pecks through the husks Into the ears of corn. The birds may peck In at first to get a worm, but it is a case similar to the discovery of roast pig as portrayed by Lamb. They alight on the ground and feed upon table scraps thrown to chickens, three of them being regular morning visitors, star boarders, to a pea of chickens I fed. They are very fond of peaches and pears, and volubly resent being driven from a tree of the fruit. They peck holes In ripening pomegranates and then the green fruit beetle helps finish the frult. They relish grapes, both white and colored, and will spear one with their bill and carry It to a convenient crevice where it may be eaten at leisure. On bird tables I have tried them with various articles of food and found very little that they rejected. They would not eat cantaloupe at all but were regular watermelon fiends, eating it three times a day and calling for more. They did not care for oranges, and I had no success in trying to teach them to eat ripe pickled olives. I tried the olive diet on them because two Mocking.hlrds in our yard learned to eat this fruit. Meat, raw and cooked, was eaten, and they ate suet greedily. Their favorite cut of beef was the T-bone steak and we always left some meat on the bone for them. They picked it clean, and If a new supply was slow in coming the softer parts of the hone were devoured. 0 * Mr. Frank Pinkley, custodian of the Casa Grande Ruins told me of a pair of these woodpeckers that stayed around his home and became quite tame, coming into the shed to drink from a can of water. He said they got into the habit of sucking the eggs in the chicken house, or at least pecking Into them and eating of the contents. * S *
The Indians store corn In the ear on the fiat tops of their houses and sheds, * * * and each home has one or more of woodpecker retainers or pensioners hanging about most of the time. This corn provides an abundant and sure source of food, and the birds make the most of it. I have never seen any indication of food-storage on the part of the Gila woodpecker, as with the California Woodpecker, for they live in a claw-to-beak fashion. They peck at a kernel until it comes off the cob, when it is carried to a post or tree and placed firmly In a crack. Here It Is pecked to pieces and eaten. They seem never to swallow a kernel whole but always break It up.
W. L. Dawson (1923) says that this woodpecker indulges in a systematic search for birds’ eggs, especially those of the Lucy warbler, yellow warbler, and Arizona Least Virec. In case of the first-named, the eggs are devoured in spite of the most emphatic protests of the tiny parents; but eggs of Cardinal, Cooper Tanager and Towhee must be obtained by stealth.”
A. H. Anderson (1934) writes:
In the Tucson, Arizona, area a gall-insect (Pachypspfla venusta) frequently attacks the leaves of Qie hackberry tree (Celtis reticulate). The galls form on the leaf petiole, becoming from a quarter to half an inch In diameter. During the winter the outer shell hardens like a nut.
I have often seen the Gila woodpeckers tear the galls loose from the twigs and, flying to a fence post, proceed to chisel out the contents. The hard gall Is wedged into a crack on the post and then opened by repeated hammering. Around the base of one fence post I counted nearly 300 empty shells. Sometimes cracks in nearby trees are used. At one time five of these woodpeckers were seen in a single tree, all of them feeding on the galls.
Behavior: The Gila woodpecker is not only the most abundant woodpecker, in fact one of the most abundant birds, in the region it inhabits, but it is more conspicuous, noisier, and more active than any of its neighbors. It is always much in evidence, always protesting the intrusion of a stranger, and shows the greatest concern when its nest is approached, especially if it has young. It is a close sitter and will often remain in the nest hole to peck viciously at an investigating hand; while the nest is being robbed, it flits nervously about, scolding vociferously with all the vile epithets it can muster. As to its behavior with other species, Mr. Gilman (1915) writes:
This woodpecker has not the best disposition in the world, for he is very quarrelsome and intolerant He fights his own kin and all the neighbors that he dares. He, or she, is a great bluffer however and when “called”, frequently side-steps, subsides, or backs out entirely. I saw one approach a Bendire Thrasher that was eating, and suddenly pounce on him. He had the thrasher down and I was thinking of offering my friendly services as a board of arbitration, when the under bird crawled from beneath and soon gave the woodpecker the thrashing of his career. Several times I have seen the woodpeckers start to attack Bendire and Palmer thrashers, but they were always bluffed or beaten at the game. With the Bronzed Cowbirds It is a drawn battle, sometimes one and then the other backing down. Most other birds, such as Cardinals, Abert Towhees, Dwarf Cowbirds and Cactus Wrens do not attempt to assert their rights, but always take a rear seat. But when it Is woodpecker versus woodpecker it seems not to be a case of “Thrice armed Is he who hath his quarrel just”, but rather, “Four times he who gets his blow in fust”.
I had two bird tables about twenty feet apart, and frequently one woodpecker might be peacefully assimilating watermelon, when another one would come hurrying up and make a dive at him, causing a retreat to the other table. Frequently the new-coiner would then follow and drive him from the second table. He seemingly would rather fight than eat If another was eating at the same time. One day I saw him, or her, I forget which, hanging to the edge of the table busily eating steak, when another one perched on the table and made a vicious stab at hIm. He dodged backward clear under the table, though retaining his hold, and then bobbed up again, just lIce the Punch and Judy show. The attack was renewed, and the dodging as well, but this time he did not “come back”. Another day one of them was at work on a piece of melon whea one of his fellows came and perched on the end of the table. The diner made a pass at the new comer, and seizIng him by the feathers of the neck held him suspended over the end of the table for a few seconds.
Voice: Major Bendire (1895) says: “Its ordinary call note, sounding like ‘dchiirr, dchiirr,’ can be heard in all directions in the spring; when flying from one point to another it usually utters a sharp, shrill ‘huit’ two or three times, resembling the common call note of the Phainopepla, and which may readily be mistaken for it. It is also more or less addicted to drumming on the dead tops of cottonwood, sycamore, and mesquite trees.”
Mr. Gilman (1915) writes:
As a neighbor, the Gila Woodpecker Is permanently on the map, and is afraid neither of being seen nor heard. He is much in the public ear with a variety of notes and calls. His sociable conversational notes somewhat resemble those of the Caiifornia Woodpecker but are shriller. In such of his notes as are directed at humanity there is a peevish complaining tone, especially if closely approached when feeding on fruit or some other delicacy. In such cases there is only one term that exactly describes his attitude and utterances, and that is the phrase “belly-aching.” In fact all of his talk at us has a distinctly “colicky” tone and one feels like giving him something to whine about. His ordinary call slightly resembles that of the Flicker hut Is not quite so loud; altogether he is quite a conversationalist.
Field marks: The Gila woodpecker should be easily recognized as a medium-sized woodpecker, about the size of a hairy woodpecker, with a grayish-brown head, neck, and under parts and a buck narrowly barred with black and white; in flight a white patch shows in the wing and basal half of the primaries, and the black and white barring on the central tail feathers is rather conspicuous; the red crown patch of the male is conspicuous only at short range.
Fall: This woodpecker is apparently somewhat given to wandering in fall and spring, for W. E. D. Scott (1886) says that he does not see it about his house, at an elevation of 4,500 feet in Pinal County, Ariz., in summer, but that it is rather common there in fall and spring.
Range: Southwestern United States and western Mexico; nonmigratory.
The range of the Gila woodpecker extends north to extreme southern Nevada (Clark County); southern Arizona (Sacaton, Rock Canyon, and Tombstone); and southwestern New Mexico (Red Rock and probably Gila). East to New Mexico (probably Gila); eastern Sonora (Fronteras, Boca de Huachy, and Nun); southwestern Cliihuahua (Batopilas); western Durango (Chacala); and western Zacatecas (Calvillo). South to southwestern Zacatecas (Calvillo) ; and Jalisco (Guadalajara, Santa Ano, and Rio Ameca). West to Jalisco (Rio Ameca) ; Nayarit (Tepic and San Blas); southwestern Sinaloa (Escuinapa, Labrados, and Mazatlan); Baja California (Cape San Lucas, Santa Margarita Island, San Ignacia, Rosario, San Quintin, Las Palmas, and the Alamo River); southeastern California (Calexico, probably Brawley, Palo Verde, and Needles); and southern Nevada (Clark County).
This species has been separated into three geographic races, or subspecies. Typical C. u. uropygiali~s is the form found in that part of the range lying in the United States, and this race also is the one found in the western mainland of Mexico. The cardon woodpecker (C. u. cardonensis) is found in the northern part of Baj a California south to about latitude 28~ N. Brewster’s woodpecker (C. u. brews tart) occupies the cape district of Baja California north to San Ignacio and including also Santa Margarita Island.
Egg dates: Arizona: 26 records, April 7 to May 30; 13 records, May 5 to 25, indicating the height of the season.
Baja California: 10 records, April 21 to June 2.
CENTURUS UROPYGIALIS CARDONENSIS Grinnell
In describing and naming this race, Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1927a) says:
In its main characters similar to Centurus urapygialis uropygialis, but general coloration much darker: whole head (except for red patch on crown) and anterior lower surface strongly tinged with snuff brown rather than pale drab; and white barring on closed wings, tail, dorsum, rump, flanks, and lower tail coverts, narrower, leaving the black-barring correspondingly broader. Similar to C. a. brewstcri, but size larger, and coloration darker, in the same respects though not to quite so great a degree as shown in comparison with aropygiatis. In other words, the new form differs from both the previously known races in the deeper brown tinge of the head and lower surface and In the greater degree of predominance of black over white in the barring.
He says of its range: “So far as now known, only the giant cactus (cardon) association in the northern section of the Lower Californian peninsula, from about latitude 300 to latitude 31~. Lifezone, Lower Sonoran.” The 1931 Check-list extends the range northward “along the western rim of the Colorado Desert to about latitude 32g.”
A. W. Anthony (1895a) says of the haunts of this woodpecker in Baja California: “The range of this species along the Pacific slope is exactly coextensive with that of Cereus pringici, becoming common with that cactus a short distance below Rosario and seldom if ever being seen at any distance from the shelter of its mighty branches. At the mission, where the cardons were very large and abundant, to within a short distance of the mesquite thickets, this Woodpecker delighted in making frequent forays into the lesser growth, spending hours in hammering on the mesquite trunks and hunting through their branches, always beating a precipitate retreat to the cactus on the hillsides above at the first sign of danger.”
I can find nothing further of consequence published on the habits of the cardon woodpecker, which doubtless do not differ materially from those of its Arizona relative.
The eggs are similar to those of the Gila woodpecker. The measurements of 11 eggs average 23.59 by 18.30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.6 by 18.1, 24.5 by 19.8, 21.9 by 17.8, and 22.1 by 17.3 millimeters. Griffing Bancroft has a still larger egg, which measures 26.4 by 21.8 millimeters.
CENTURUS UROPYGIALIS BREWSTERI Ridgway
In the Cape region of Baja California, we find this local race, which Ridgway (1914) describes as “similar to C. u. uropiygialis but smaller, with relatively (often absolutely) larger bill, bars on back, etc., averaging decidedly narrower (t.he white ones about 1.5: 2 mm. wide), black bars on lower rump and upper tail-coverts narrower or more numerous, and white bars on lateral rectrices as well as black ones on inner web of middle rectrices narrower.”
William Brewster (1902) says: “In the Cape Region the Gila Woodpecker has apparently much the same distribution as Dryobate8 lucasanus. Neither Mr. Belding nor Mr. Frazar found it in the higher mountains, but both note its abundance throughout the low country, and Mr. Frazar obtained many specimens at Triunfo which is within the lower edge of the oak belt.”
Griffing Bancroft (1930) referred the woodpeckers of this species that he found breeding in central Lower California to this southern race. Probably they are intermediate between this and cardonen,3i8. lie says of it:
The most abundant bird of its order, ranging throughout the territory examined. It Is to be found in the suburban gardens of Santa Rosalie, among the palms of San Ignacio, and everywhere through the desert cactus belt. Its favorite choice of a home is a site high in a candelebra carddn; but it will also nest, even when not driven by necessity, in palms and tree yucca.
Its breeding season is quite long, fresh eggs being found from the latter part of April until well Into June. The number laid Is irregular. About half the sets are of two, but there are four’s and even five’s. Sixteen eggs taken In the vicinity of San Ignacio average 24.0 by 18.9 mm.
The birds are quite tame and often cannot be flushed. More than once, on opening cavities, we have lifted an adult from eggs or young, or even from an empty bole. Repeatedly a bird has been seen flying Into a nest, either to feed young or to go onto eggs, while people were standing at the foot of the tree. When their homes are being examined the birds often approach within a few feet to voice their protests. Such fearlessness Is unusual on this desert.