Found only in Texas and Oklahoma among U.S. states, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker’s biology has not been well studied. The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is an avid consumer of fruits and nuts as well as insects, and is known to hybridize with Red-bellied Woodpeckers in parts of its range.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers often eat the fruit of the prickly pear cactus when it is in season, sometimes turning their faces purple from the juice. Corn and bananas are also on the menu for Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.
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Description of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker is a medium woodpecker with barred black and white upperparts, a yellowish nape, yellowish feathering at the base of the bill, a white rump, and whitish underparts.
Males have a red crown. Length: 9 in. Wingspan: 17 in.
Females have a whitish crown.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adults.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers inhabit mesquite woodlands and riparian areas.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers eat insects, fruits, and nuts.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers forage by gleaning insects from trees, or by harvesting nuts or berries.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are resident in parts of the south-central U.S. and Mexico. The population appears to be stable.
The range of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker expanded north into Oklahoma in the 1950s, where it occasionally hybridizes with Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers sometimes stain their faces purple by eating prickly pear cactus fruits.
Calls include a harsh “churr”.
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
The Red-bellied Woodpecker has a red nape.
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker’s nest is in an excavated tree cavity or utility pole.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-14 days, and begin to fly in about another 4 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Golden-fronted 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 Golden-fronted Woodpecker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CENTURUS AURIFRONS (Wagler)
The golden-fronted woodpecker is found, in suitable localities, from central Texas southward to the Valley of Mexico. It is not, however, evenly distributed, being common in certain regions that suit its requirements and entirely absent from other types of surrounding country. For example, E. M. Hasbrouck (1889) says: “In the single locality in Eastland County where they are found, they may be said to be fairly common, but outside of an area of twenty-five square miles they are unknown in the County. * * * This section of country presents peculiar characteristics; the timber is entirely of post-oak, and the ground more or less thickly covered with ‘shinnery,’ and differs from the surrounding country in that the tops of the trees were affected some years ago with a blight, and now this entire area is one mass of dead-topped trees, and this is what apparently suits the present Species.
George F. Simmons (1925) says of its haunts in the Austin region: “Mesquite forests with large trees, and mesquite flats; partial to large timber near mesquite growth, particularly among post oak and mixed oaks on gravel uplands, and in pecan groves on open and semi-open bottoms.”
D. B. Burrows (Bendire, 1895) says that, in Starr County, on the lower Rio Grande, “the golden-fronted woodpecker is a common resident species in this locality, and much more abundant than Baird’s woodpecker, the only other variety that I have found here. They may be found wherever there is a growth of treed sufficiently large to afford nesting places, but are most numerous in the river bottoms where there is a heavy growth of old mesquite timber.”
Nesting: Major Bendire (1895) writes: “Nidification commences sometimes in the latter part of March, but usually not much before the middle of April; both sexes assist in this labor, and it takes from six to ten days to excavate a proper nesting site; both live and dead trees are used for this purpose, as well as telegraph poles and fence posts; the holes are rarely over 12 inches deep, and are situated at no great distances from the ground, mostly from 6 to 25 feet up.” As to its nesting in Starr County, he quotes from Mr. Burrows: “The nest is by preference made in the live trunks of large trees, usually the mesquite, but sometimes in a dead stump or limb, the same cavity being used year after year, and it is quite a rare thing to see a fresh excavation. The nesting season begins in April, and most of the nests contain fresh eggs by May 10. I took a set of six eggs from a cavity in a live mesquite tree, the opening being but 2 feet 9 inches from the ground, but usually they are placed from 8 to 20 feet up.” And H. P. Attwater wrote to him that “near San Antonio, Texas, where the golden-fronted woodpecker is a common resident, it nests in all kinds of tall live timber, pecan, oak, and large mesquite trees being preferred, but telegraph also. A lin poles furnished favorite sites here e running out of San Antonio to a ranch nine miles distant was almost destroyed by these birds; they came from all sides, from far and near, and made fresh holes every year, sometimes as many as five or six in a single l)ole. Here it also nests occasionally in artificial nesting sites, like bird boxes, etc., in yards and gardens.”
My only experience with the nesting habits of this woodpecker was in Cameron County, Tex., where we found this noisy and conspicuous bird quite common in the trees about the ranches. On May 24, 1923, we found two nests quite near the buildings on a well-kept Mexican ranch and collected two sets of four fresh eggs; one was about 8 feet up in an anaqua tree and the other about 12 feet from the ground in a willow.
Eggs: The golden-fronted woodpecker lays four to seven eggs to a set, usually four or five. The eggs are pure white and vary from ovate to short or rounded-ovate, with very little or no gloss when fresh.
The measurements of 59 eggs average 25.82 by 19.50 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 28.45 by 20.07, 27.94 by 20.83, 22.86 by 17.78, and 25.91 by 18.03 millimeters.
Young: Major Bendire (1895) says: “Incubation lasts about fourteen days, and both sexes share this duty. * * * It is probable that two broods are occasionally raised in a season, as there are sets of eggs in the collection taken in June, and two of these in the latter part of this month.” But Mr. Simmons (1925) says “probably only one brood.” Both parents assist in the care of the young. In summer and fall the young may be seen traveling about with their parents in family parties, but they separate before winter.
Plumages: Probably the young are hatched naked and blind, as with other woodpeckers, and the juvenal plumage is acquired before the young bird leaves the nest. The young male, in juvenal plumage, is similar to the adult male but is everywhere duller, with the markings less clearly defined; the red crown patch is smaller and consists of somewhat scattered red feathers; there is usually more or less indistinct dusky barring on the forehead, which is duller yellow than in the adult; the yellow of the hind neck is paler and duller; the chest. is usually more or less streaked with dusky, and the yellow on the abdomen is paler. The young female is similar to the young male but without any red on the head, the yellow band on the hind neck paler, and the under parts all paler. This juvenal plumage is apparently worn all through fall and early winter; I have seen it as late as January 5; but probably a protracted molt during fall and winter produces a gradual change into a plumage that is practically adult. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt late in summer and fall, mainly in August and September, according to what few molting specimens I have seen.
Food: Bendire (1895) says: “Their food consists of insects of various kinds, such as beetles, ants, grasshoppers, also larvae, acorns, Indian corn, and different kinds of wild berries and fruit. Considered from an economic point of view, this woodpecker certainly does more good than harm, and the only thing that can be said against it is that in certain localities where it is common it may make itself more or less of a nuisance by injuring telegraph poles.” In this connection, George B. Sennett (1879) makes the following interesting remark: “The numerous holes which I observed the previous season in the telegraph poles, and which I inferred might be nests of Woodpeckers, I found to be excavations made by the birds in search of a large species of borer that works in the dry wood.”
Roy XV. Quillin writes to me that “this species has an odd habit of placing shelled mesquite beans in the nesting holes. I have not yet found any reason for this which seemed plausible.”
Behavior: In general habits and behavior, the golden-fronted woodpecker is much like the red-bellied woodpecker, to which it is closely related; and it reminded me also of our more familiar redheaded woodpecker. It is a lively, active, noisy bird, being much in ex-idence wherever it is found. It loves to perch for many minutes in the dead top of some tall tree or on some telegraph or telephone pole, where it can obtain a good outlook. Mr. Burrows (Bendire, 1895) says: “During the fall and winter they may be found traveling about from place to place in pairs, and are easily located by the call note, which somewhat resembles that of the red-bellied woodpecker, the habits of the two birds being in many respects quite similar: In the spring, when nesting, they become very noisy, and when approached, utter their alarm note with great vigor. I have never known this species to drum on a dead limb, as most of the other woodpeckers do. When searching for food they may be seen very diligently at work near the base of old trees, among the thick bushes. or even on the ground.”
Voice: Mr. Simmons (1925) says that this bird is “extremely noisy,” and describes its notes as “a harsh, rapid, scolding chithchuh-ch’uh-chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh; a metallic whah-whah; a loud, long-drawn sk-k-k-k-ah-er-r-r-r or tcher-r-r-r, tcher-r-r-r; a short check, check-check. Both this species and the red-bellied woodpecker have the same chow, chow, chow, chow call; however, there is a striking difference in the tone; the call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker may be imitated by completely filling the mouth with air and keeping the lips pushed well forward, while that of the goldenfronted woodpecker: choogh-choogh: is best given by pulling the lips back tightly, tautening the vocal cords, and making a hoarse, croupy noise in the throat, since the bird at times sounds as if it had a bad cold.”
Mr. Ilasbrouck (1889) writes: “Their note is peculiar, combining the ‘chirp, chirp’ of carolinus with a certain shrillness and accent of their own, while the call note, either flying or at rest, is similar to that of M. erythrocepha~us and at the same time not unlike that of (‘olaptes auratus. While their notes once learned are readily recognized, still it takes not a little practice to distinguish between a red-head in one tree and the gold-front in the next, or between a gold-front and a flicker when both are on the opposite side of a ravine and hidden from view; and I have more than once shot carolinus even when morally certain it was what I wanted.”
Field marks: The golden-fronted woodpecker might easily be confused with the red-bellied woodpecker, for they are often found in the same general region, and both have the back and wings barred with black and white; but all the lower part of the rump is white, instead of barred, in the golden-fronted and the gray under parts are tinged with yellow, instead of red; the male red-bellied has the whole upper part of the head, from forehead to hind neck, bright scarlet, and the female has an extensive patch of red on the posterior half of the upper head; whereas the male golden-fronted has a much smaller patch of red on the crown, a yellow forehead, and an orange-yellow band on the hind neck; and the female goldenfronted has no red on the head at all. The voice is said to be more distinctive than the color pattern.
Enemies: Mr. Quill in writes to me: “While this species is still fairly abundant in southern Texas, it was much more plentiful ten or more years ago. Because of the damage the birds wrought to telephone and telegraph poles, the various concerns owning such property secured passage of a law placing all woodpeckers on the unprotected list. This done, they gave section crews of the railroads shotguns, and the killing wa~ on in earnest. Hunters and others helped, and the result has been a marked decrease in the ranks of this species. The killing, or controlling still continues. However, pressure is now being brought to place the birds back on the protected list, and this will be done sooner or later. There is no getting around the fact that the birds did cause considerable damage. In this species we have a woodpecker which for centuries had been pecking into hard mesquite trees. Along came the soft pine poles and these same birds immediately literally ate them up. I have seen 16 holes, three of which were deep enough for nesting sites, in one small pole, not over 10 inches in diameter.”
Range: North-central Texas south to Central Mexico; nonmi. gratory.
The golden-fronted woodpecker ranges north to central Texas (San Angelo and Dallas). East to Texas (Dallas, Giddings, Cuero, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville) ; Tamaulipas (Matamoros, San Fernando, Ciudad Victoria, and Tampico); southeastern San Luis Potosi (Valles); Hidalgo (Ixmiquilipam and Tula); and the Federal District of Mexico (near Mexico City). South to the Federal District of Mexico (near Mexico City) ; Michoacan (Querendero, Moreha, and Patzcuaro); and Jalisco (Ocotlan and Guadalajara). West to jalisco (Guadalajara) ; Zacatecas (Calvillo, Aguas Calientes, and Chicalote) ; northwestern Durango (Boquilla, Sestin, and Rosario) eastern Chihuahua (Julimes); and central Texas (Eagle Pass, Fort Clark, Kerryille, and San Angelo).
Egg dates: Texas: 66 records, March 30 to June 29; 33 records, April 24 to May 17, indicating the height of the season.