The White-headed Woodpecker of the northwestern U.S. has a striking appearance and a diet that is unusual for a woodpecker. Pine seeds are one of the White-headed Woodpecker’s most important food sources, and it only rarely drills into wood for insects, instead flaking off bark or searching clusters of needles when not looking for pine seeds.
Chipmunks are one nest predator of White-headed Woodpecker eggs. In those nests that survive, the eggs do not usually all hatch on the same day, and the last egg to be laid often does not hatch at all because it isn’t incubated quite long enough. Forest fragmentation and logging practices appear to have resulted in population declines in some areas.
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Description of the White-headed Woodpecker
The White-headed Woodpecker is mostly black, with a white head and white patch in each wing.
Males have a red hind crown.
Females have no red on the crown.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adults but have pale red crowns.
White-headed Woodpeckers inhabit pine forests in western mountains.
White-headed Woodpeckers eat insects and pine seeds.
White-headed Woodpeckers forage on tree trunks, limbs, and needle clusters, and also pry open pine cones for seeds.
White-headed Woodpeckers are resident in parts of California and the northwestern U.S. The population appears to be increasing in California and declining in Oregon.
White-headed Woodpeckers are mostly sedentary, and switch from insects to a diet of pine seeds in the fall and winter.
One study found White-headed Woodpeckers to be late risers in the morning compared to other species present in the same forest.
Calls include a sharp “pittit”, sometimes given in a longer series.
- Acorn Woodpeckers have a white belly and rump.
The White-headed Woodpecker’s nest is an excavated cavity in a tree.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days, and leave the nest in about 4 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the White-headed 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 White-headed Woodpecker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
DRYOBATES ALBOLARVATUS ALBOLARVATUS (Cassin)
The northern race of the white-headed woodpecker is found in the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, from Washington to Kern County, Calif., and eastward into western Idaho and western Nevada.
It is a bird of the pine and fir forests in the mountains, ranging from 4,000 to 9,000 feet during the breeding season, but coming down to lower levels in winter. W. L. Dawson (1923) says: “This woodpecker is essentially a pine-loving species and is, therefore, nearly confined to the slopes of the Sierras and the Transition zones of the southern ranges. Only in winter does it appear at lower levels, and then rarely beyond the pale of the yellow pine. So close is this devotion of bird to tree that the woodpecker’s feathers are almost always smeared with pine pitch; and I have found eggs dotted with pitch and soiled to blackness by contact with the sitting bird.”
Clarence F. Smith writes to me that he found this woodpecker very common around a camp where he was located from June 25 to July 10, 1935, in Tuolumne County, Calif., in the Transition Zone at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. The camp was at one time a lumbering mill, and there was much dead standing timber nearby. Most of the trees were Pinus ponderosa and Pinus lambertianti.
Nesting: The same observer says in his notes: “All the nests observed, except one in a Quercus kelloggi, were in dead standing stumps of the pines. The stumps were mostly some 12 to 15 feet in height, and the nests averaged about 8 feet above ground, with an approximate minimum of 6 feet. These nests may not represent a typical situation, as they were undoubtedly the ones that were most obvious to casual observation. Nests in higher locations would more easily escape notice. We had at least 8 nests within a half-mile radius of camp headquarters, and the birds were one of the commonest species in the vicinity. None of the nests opened contained any lining but chips of wood, and the cavities were about 14 inches in depth. None of the nest trees were less than 2 feet in diameter at the point where the nest was located. Many of the stumps had several holes in them, some of which had been nests in previous years, and some of which had been merely abortive attempts at drilling. The one nest in the oak, referred to above, was in a live tree with a decayed heart.”
Major Bendire (1895) writes:
Nidification usually begins about the middle of May and continues through June. The sexes relieve each other in the preparation of the nesting site, which is usuaUy located In a dead stub of a pine or fir; one that is partly decayed seems to be preferred as it rarely excavates one in solid, hard wood. The nesting sites are seldom situated over 15 feet from the ground, and sometimes as low as 2 feet. The entrance hole is about 11/2 inches wide, perfectly circular, and just large enough to admit the bird; the inner cavity gradually widens towards the bottom, and is usually from S to 12 inches deep, the eggs lying on a slight layer of fine chips, in which they become well embedded as incubation advances. Occasionally a rather peculiar site is selected. Mr. Charles A. Allen found a nest of this species in a post in one of the snow sheds on the Central Pacific. Railroad, between Blue Canyon and Emigrant Gap, about 40 feet from the entrance of the shed, and some thirty trains passed daily within a few feet of the nest, which contained six eggs when found.
Milton P. Skinner sends me the following notes on nest building by this woodpecker: “On May 10, 1933, I found one at work on a hole in a stub of a tree, about 3 feet above ground. Although this was in the Sequoia National Park beside one of the most used paths, it was deepening the hole for a nest. Chips were scattered on the ground below. After pecking a while, the woodpecker would get into the hole and soon after back out. again with a hillful of chips. It then opened its bill and let them scatter to the ground; then back to work again. Although this was as public a place as could be found, and though the birds must frequently have been disturbed by the crowds of people and were within reach of hundreds of children, they succeeded in raising their brood of young. In spite of nesting SO low, most of these birds are usually seen from 20 to 50 feet, and sometimes as high as 100 feet, above ground, working on the trees.”
Of ten nests found by Grinnell and Storer (1924) in the Yosemite region: the lowest was located only 58 inches (measured) above ground and the highest, 15 feet (estimated). * * * No nest holes of this woodpecker wore found In living conifers. Noi, on the other hand, do the birds soek what is commonly known as rotten wood, that is, wood too soft for the nest cavity to be maIntained against the incessant wear involved in the birds’ passage back and forth, incident to the rearing of a brood. The tree chosen must have been dead a sufficient length of time for the pitch to have hardened or to have descended to the base of the tree, and the outer shell of the tree must still be hard and firm, whereas the interior must have been softened to a moderate degree by decay. These conditions are not to be met with in every standing dead stub; hence the choice of a nest site becomes a matter of rather fine discrimination.
They found plenty of evidence of this discrimination in the many unfinished nesting holes of varying depths that had been abandoned, often several in the same stub. “Some stubs are literally riddled with holes, these probably recording successive years of occupancy. One stub had at least 5 fully excavated holes besides 11 or more prospects. * * * We were led to conclude from all this that the Whiteheaded Woodpecker is either notional or else very particular, in the selection of its home. Evidence points strongly to the birds excavating and occupying a new cavity each year, although one set of eggs was found in a hole which had been dug in earlier years.”
They made a number of careful measurements of four nests, at heights varying from about 5 feet to about 10 feet above ground; the internal dimensions varied somewhat, but the size of the entrance hole was “surprisingly constant”; in one case this hole was a perfect circle, 43 by 43 millimeters, and in another 37 by 37 millimeters; in the other two cases the entrance hole measured 47 millimeters in height and 42 in width; translated into inches this shows a variation in the two dimensions of from 1.45 to 1.85 inches, which does not seem to be “surprisingly constant.” The total depth of the cavity varied from 275 to 400 millimeters, or from about 10 to 15 inches.
They say further: “Two of the nest cavities we found were in such unusual sites as to call forth comment. One at Hazel Green was in a slanting upright limb on a prostrate dead black oak trunk lying in a grassy meadow, fully 150 feet from the margin of the forest. The hole was excavated on the lower side of the stub. The other nest was at Tamarack Flat, in the butt end of an old log, lifted above the ground when the tree fell over a granite outcrop. This hole was about 7½ feet above the ground, and as with the other there were piles of chips immediately beneath it.”
Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) mention a nest they found in the Lassen Peak region that was “four meters up in the trunk of a dead-topped aspen.” Bendire (1895) mentions a nest found near Camp Ilarney, Oreg., that was about 25 feet from the ground in a dead limb of a pine; this nest seems to be at about the limit as to height above ground. A set in my collection was taken from a nest 10 feet up in a dead aspen.
Eggs: The white-headed woodpecker lays three to seven eggs, four being the commonest number, and five rather often. These vary in shape from ovate to short-ovate. They are pure white and moderately or quite glossy. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say: “The eggs in one set had a wrinkled appearance at the smaller end as though that end had been compressed before the shells had hardened. Eggs which are advanced in incubation are apt to be soiled by pitch; this is doubtless brought in by the parent birds on their bills, feet, or plumage.” Sometimes the eggs show tiny black dots, orï are profusely smeared with black from the same cause. The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.26 by 18.11 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.40 by 18.29, 25.40 by 19.50, 21.84 by 17.78, and 22.86 by 16.76 millimeters.
Young: Incubation is said to last for 14 nays and to be shared by both sexes. Both parents also assist in the care and feeding of the young. Clarence F. Smith tells me that “the female at one nest made trips about twice as frequently as the male; her visits were about two minutes apart, while the visits of the male were about five mlnutes.” (irinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) write:
On July 1, the young woodpeckers, by this time half~grown, were being fed by the parents, mostly by the female. Food was brought at intervals averaging fifteen minutes each. The birds foraged at distances up to a quarter of a mile away from the nest. The female carried away the feces.
On July 11 the female seemed to be coaxing the young from this nest. When the young woodpeckers stuck their beads ont of the cavity, the parent would move away from the entrance and call, although it remained on the tree trunk. When a person shook the stub two of the young birds flew out and went thirty meters before coming to the ground. Wbea placed on a tree trunk the birds could move freely upward or downward. Within a few minutes one of the young birds could fly so well that it successfully evaded capture by the observer.
Plumages: M with other woodpeckers, the young are hatched naked and blind, but the juvenal plumage is acquired before the young bird leaves the nest. The juvenal plumage is much like that of the adult but duller, and the bill is shorter and weaker; the contour plumage is softer and looser; the lower parts are brownish black instead of clear black, and the back is only a little darker; the white in the primaries is more restricted. In the young male, the posterior half of the crown is largely “vermilion” or “salmon orange”; these reddish colors are much reduced or entirely absent in the young female. IRidgway (1914) says that the feathers of the hind neck and underparts are sometimes, perhaps on younger birds than I have seen, “indistinctly and narrowly margined at tip with grayish, and the hiudneck sometimes indistinctly spotted with whitish.” By the middle of September this juvenal plumage, including the wings and tail, has been replaced by the first winter plumage, which is like that of the adult, except for somewhat less white in the primaries. Adults have a complete annual molt, xvhich begins in July and is generally completed before the end of September.
Food: The white-headed woodpecker forages for its food mainly, if not entirely, on the trunks and branches of coniferous trees, living or dead. Mr. Skinner writes to me that he has seen it feeding on the trunks of sequoias, sugar pines, and Douglas firs, searching most diligently and thoroughly in the crevices in the bark for insects and their eggs; it generally begins low down on the tree and progresses upward, working pretty Well up to the top of the tree before flying off; occasionally, one has worked horizontally around a tree trunk, but not downward. Dr. J. C. Merrill (1888) describes its method of feeding very well, as follows:
So far as I have observed, and during the winter I watched it carefully, its principal supply of food is obtained in the bark, most of the pines having a very rough bark, scaly and deeply fissured. The bird uses its bill as a crowbar rather than as a hammer or chisel, prying off the successive scales and myers of bark in a very characteristic way. This explains the fact of its being such a quiet worker, and as would be expected it is most often seen near the base of the tree where the bark is thickest and roughest It must destroy immense numbers of Scolytidae, whose larvae tunnel the bark so extensively, and of other insects that crawl beneath the scales of bark for shelter during winter. I have several times imitated the work of this bird by prying off the successive layers of bark, and have been astonished at the great numbers of insects, and especially of spiders, so exposed.
Prof. F. E. L. Beal (1911) examined only 14 stomachs, but says that “half of the animal food of the white-headed woodpecker (Xenopicu8 aThola~rvatus) is ants, but the most pronounced characteristic of this bird is its fondness for the seeds of pines, which constitute more than half of the food.”
Grinnell and Storer (1924) say: “Stomachs of two adult birds, obtained at Merced Grove Big Trees on June 10, 1915, and at East Fork of Indian Cafion, June 24, 1915, both held ants, some of which were large carpenter ants. The stomach of one of the young birds from the nest mentioned above contained remains of 2 large spiders, a large ant, 2 boring beetles, and a whole fly larva.”
Major Bendire (1895) quotes flollo H. Beck as saying: “I noticed one of these birds on some fallen logs near the road, busily engaged in catching spiders, searching for grubs, and frequently flying after passing insects, catching them~ in mid-air in the maimer of the California Woodpecker.”
Behavior: Dr. Merrill (1888) writes: “Though not shy, and with care generally approachable to within a short distance, it is watchful and suspicious, and seems to know very well what is going on even if it does not see fit to fly away, though it is more apt to do this than to dodge around the trunk. The flight is direct, and rather slow and heavy.” Dr. Merrill noted that the skull of the white-headed woodpecker is “noticeably less hard and dense” than the skulls of other woodpeckers; this is probably due to the fact that its method of feeding requires less heavy drilling into bard wood.
Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1902) says: “Xenopicu,s works with apparent indifference on trunks or branches. Like the Nuttall woodpecker he often lights upside down. In hunting over the bark he easily backs down the trunk, or if he takes the notion will fly, or perhaps drop backwards, a foot or so. He will also light sidewise on a branch and grasp the limb with his tail as if afraid of falling off.
It is interesting to see him explore cracks in the bark. Standing on the edge he pokes his head into the dark cavern, turning it from one side to the other inquiringly.”
Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:
At Tamarack Fiat, on May 26, 1919, a female white-beaded woodpecker was seen to flush from her nest about ten feet above ground in a dead pine stub. Tapping by one of us on a nearby bole had caused her to leave, but she returned to the vicinity almost immediately. Then, for fully 25 minutes, while the observer remained within watching distance the bird foraged, preened, and flew about from one to another of the circle of S or 10 trees within a 50-foot radius of the nest, but always kept the nest tree in her sight. About every 5 minutes she would fly to the nest. In approaching it, she would swoop below its level and then glide up to the site with decreasing speed so as to end her flight with little or no momentum. Then, having gained claw-hold, she would poke the fore part of her body into the hole, withdraw it at once and repeat this performance four or five times before flying away again. Finally, after fully half an hour had elapsed, and her suspicious had been allayed, she went in, to remain. During this entire time the male kept out of sight and was heard oaly twice.
Van Rossem and Pierce (1915) noted its manner of drinking, thus: “White-headed woodpeckers were often observed to drink at a small stream near our camp at Bear Lake, where a pine sapling grew from the edge of a small pool. On this sapling the birds would alight, usually about three feet from the base, ‘hitch’ quickly backwards down the trunk to the water, and, leaning sharply to one side, drink by quick, nervous dips.”
Another method of drinking is described by Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930), as follows: “In mid-afternoon one flew down from a yellow pine to some shallow, running water in an open roadside near Mineral. It alighted in a horizontal position on the ground and dipped its bill into the water six times. After each dip the bird raised its bill skyward at an angle of fully eighty degrees front the horizontal. After drinking, the bird flew to a prostrate log, and foraged horizontally along its lower curvature.”
Some observers seem to think that the white-headed woodpecker rarely, if ever, drums on tree trunks, but seeks its food more quietly; but Alexander Sprunt, Jr., tells me that the birds he saw in Oregon “drummed and beat upon the tree trunks and telephone poles at the roadside, exactly as any other woodpecker.” Clarence F. Smith writes to me that “one male bird was a regular overnight guest, hanging to the ridgepole of our cabin, outside the wall, just beneath the eaves. He never made any attempt to drill the wood there.”
Voice: Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that “the usual call note of this woodpecker is a single wielc, but when excited, the female calls cheep-eep-eep-eep, very fast, and repeats the call every few seconds. The male, under similar circumstances calls yip, yip, yip, yip, in a much shriller tone, but in slower time.” Mr. Dawson (1923) once heard “a double or treble call-note, chick-up or chick-it-up, which reminded me somewhat of the Cabanis’s cry.” Major Bendire (1895) heard it utter “a sharp, clear witt-witt” as it passed from one tree to another; he considered it a rather silent bird.
Field marks: The white-headed woodpecker could hardly be mistaken for any other bird. It is the only woodpecker with a wholly black body and a wholly white head; while perched it shows a long white stripe in the wing, and while flying a large white patch in the wing is conspicuous; the narrow red band on the nape is not conspicuous and can be seen only at short range and only in the adult male; young birds show more or less red in the crown. One would think that such a strikingly marked bird would be very conspicuous, but such is not the case; its coloration is, in fact, somewhat concealing in its chosen environment; its quiet behavior helps to make it less obvious. For example, Dr. Merrill (1888) writes: “On most of the pines in this vicinity there are many short stubs of small broken branches projecting an inch or two from the main trunk. When the sun is shining these projections are lighted up in such a manner as to appear quite white at a little distance, and they often cast a shadow exactly resembling the black body of the bird. In winter when a little snow has lodged on these stubs the resemblance is even greater, and almost daily I was misled by this deceptive appearance, either mistaking the stub for a bird or the reverse.”
Furthermore, Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) state that “it was further observed that in usual pose, either when foraging or when in digging or inspecting a nest hole, the whole back of a bird (either sex) appeared to a nearby observer solidly black, clear to the top of the head. The white showed only as a very narrow rim or border anteriorly around the black of the head. * * * At the same time the concealing black of the bird’s dorsal surface must cover all of the area of the bird exposed to the view of the potentially inimical observer at more or less distance.”
And again, Mrs. Bailey (1902) says:
Impossible as it would seem at first sight, I have found that the snow-white head often serves the bird as a disguise. It Is the disguise of color pattern, for the black body seen against a tree trunk becomes one of the black streaks or shadows of the bark, and the white head Is cut off as a detached white spot without bird-like suggestions. On the other hand, when the bird Is exploring the light-barked young Shasta firs or gray, barkiess tracts of old trees, the white of the head tones in with the gray and is lost, the headless back again becoming only a shadow or scar. But the most surprising thing of all is to see the sun streaming full on the white head and find that the bird form Is lost. The white In this case Is so glaring that it fills the eye and carries It over to the light streaks on the hark, making the black sink away as insignificant.
The activities of this and other woodpeckers play an important role in the welfare of the forests and the lives of the little furred and feathered denizens of the woods. It is a well-known fact that woodpeckers are most useful in guarding the living trees and destroying the insect pests that injure them; but Grinnell and Storer (1924) have called our attention to the fact that woodpeckers in general, and the white-headed woodpecker in particular, contribute, by their excessive drilling of nest holes, “rather directly toward bringing down the standing dead timber.” They continue:
Drilling by woodpeckers results In an increase in the number of entrances through which insects may get at the heart wood of a tree and thus hasten Its ultimate disintegration. Water, also, is thus afforded an easier entrance and this hastens decay. Eventually each and every tree must yield its place In the forest to seedlings. The woodpeckers hasten this process of replacement, once the tree is dead.
Many of the wood-inhabiting animals depend upon this woodpeckex to furnish them convenient nest holes or retreats. We have found mountain chickadees and slender-billed nuthatches incubating their own eggs in holes drilled in earlier years by the white-headed woodpecker; a Sierra flying squirrel was found occupying an old white-head’s hole. Probably, tree-dwelling chipmunks and perhaps California pigmy o~vls also occupy holes of this woodpecker.
Range: Pacific coast of the United States; occurring rarely in southern British Columbia; nonmigratory.
The range of the white-headed woodpecker extends north to Washington (Methow River and probably Fort Colville) ; and northern Idaho (Fort Sherman). East to western Idaho (Fort Sherman and Grangeville); eastern Oregon (Hurricane Creek, Powder River Mountains, Anthony, and Camp Harney) ; western Nevada (Carson); and eastern California (Bijou, Yosemite Valley, Pyramid Peak, San Bernardino Mountaills, and Cuyamaca Mountains). South to southern California (Cuyamaca Mountains and Mount Pinos). West to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, Calif. (Mount Pinos, Bear Valley, Fyffe, Butte Lake, and Mount Shasta); western Oregon (Pinehurst, Foley Creek, and The Dalles); and western Washington (Kalama, Cle Elum, and Methow River).
The species has been separated into two subsp~ cies, the northern white-headed woodpecker (Dryobates a. aTholarvatu.s), occupying most of the range south to the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, and the southern white-headed woodpecker (D. a. gravirostri.s), found in the mountain ranges of southern California.
Casual records: A specimen collected near Point Bonita, Mann County, Calif., on July 20, 1932, is the only coastal record in that State. There is, however, an old record for Grays Harbor, Wash. (previous to 1892), which cannot now be confirmed.
In the Provincial Museum at Victoria, British Columbia, there is an unlabeled specimen said to have been collected in the Similtameen Valley. Two have been collected at Okanagan, British Columbia, one on December 20, 1911, and the other on January 24, 1914.
Egg dates: California: 53 records, April 24 to June 16; 27 records, May 22 to June 7, indicating the height of the season.
SOUTHERN WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER
DRYOBATES ALBOLARVATUS GRAVIROSTRIS (Grinnell)
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1902), in describing and naming the whiteheaded woodpecker of the mountain ranges of southern California, gave as its characters: “Similar to Xenopicus albolarvatus but bill much heavier, and size in general slightly greater.” He named it as a distinct species, on the theory that “the material at hand does not justify subspecific treatment of these two forms. Geographical continuity of ranges possibly exists; but it seems quite as likely that there is a. broad hiatus in the vicinity of Tehachapi Pass, whence I can find no record of the white-headed woodpecker.”
‘The range of this form includes the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, and Cuyamaca Mountains in southern California. Dr. Grinnell (1908) fouiid this woodpecker rather scarce in the San Bernardino Mountains, and says: “They were seen only in the Transition zone, none being observed above the fir belt, and but very few down into pure yellow pine tracts. In the vicinity of Fish creek, 6,500 feet, a few pairs were breeding in June. On July 5, 1905, I found a nesting hole seven feet up in a dead pine stub, which contained four half-fledged young. We did not see the species anywhere higher than 8,000 feet, except on the south slope of Sugarloaf, where on July 11, 1906, one was seen among the silver firs at about 9,000 feet altitude. About Bluff lake they were more common than anywhere else, and a few were seen on the northern slopes of Sugarloaf at about 8,000 feet, in August.”
W. L. Dawson (1923) writes: “In the San Jacinto Mountains, where these white-heads outnumber all other woodpeckers combined, our attention was drawn, on the 6th day of June, by a male who tittered anxiously as we stumbled along the rough trail. We camped on the prospect immediately, but it took a full hour to trace the ‘damage’ to a hole fifty feet up in a yellow pine stub, which was three feet through at the base. * * *
“We found a clean-cut round hole, one and a half inches in diameter, which gave admission to a cavity ten inches deep, and which had for its outer ~vall only the thick bark of the tree.”
Frank Stephens wrote to Major Bendire (1895) : “Xe’nopicus albolarvatus is a resident of the pine regions of southern California, but is not common excepting possibly in a few localities. I have never observed it below the pines. I have taken incubating birds in June in the Cuyamaca Mountains at altitudes of about 7,000 feet. The nesting sites here were in very large dead pine trees and inaccessible.” This woodpecker seems to show a tendency to nest, at least occasionally, at greater heights above ground than its northern relative, butotherwise its habits seem to be very similar.
The eggs are similar to those of the northern race. The measurements of 20 eggs average 24.67 by 18.60 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.70 by 19.50, 25.60 by 19.70, and 22.62 by 16.67 millimeters.