The elusive white-headed woodpecker is an interesting species with its bold all-white head and its quiet presence.
Its home is primarily restricted to patchy areas in western mountainous pine forests with soft, dead, or burned trees and snags. They are poor excavators and rely on foraging to access food.
As you read on, take note that these woodpeckers have some unique characteristics.
1. They’re The Only U.S. Woodpecker With An All-White Head
The medium-sized white-headed woodpecker is the only woodpecker in North America with an all-white head. Other species of black and white woodpeckers have white heads broken with black stripes or patches.
Male and female white-headed woodpeckers are identical in appearance except for the back of the head. Males have a red rear crown spot.
They both have 2 white patches on their wings that look like stripes along their sides when folded.
Juveniles are duller in color with a red patch in the middle of their crown and broken white patches in the wings.
2. The White-Headed Woodpecker Is Quiet & Hard To Find
Despite its bright white head, this woodpecker is unusually quiet and inconspicuous. They are not as noisy as other foraging woodpeckers, with slower and looser drumming styles.
It most commonly produces a call when flying that sounds like a sharp, rattling, prolonged “pee-dee-dee-dik”.
3. They Are Attracted To Recently Burned Forests
White-headed woodpeckers are attracted to places where there has been a recent fire. They also prefer areas near large conifer trees, such as Ponderosa pines.
This bird excavates soft wood to create cavities. These are found or created in dead trees, fallen logs, and snags (dead or dying standing trees) for roosting and nesting.
Nearby pine trees offer pine nuts, a favorite food.
4. White-Headed Woodpeckers Cling To Pinecones To Pry Them Open
In the winter, white-headed woodpeckers heavily feed on unopened pine cones. In particular, they like seed cones from ponderosa pine and sugar pine trees.
They cling to the sides and bottom of the cone and pry it open to extract the seeds inside. By clinging, the woodpeckers avoid getting sap on their feathers, which could be detrimental to their ability to fly.
The extracted pine seeds are then wedged into tree crevices and bark. The bird then hammers against it with its bill to break it into smaller edible pieces.
5. They Aren’t Strong Excavators & Forage A Varied Diet Instead
While white-headed woodpeckers primarily forage on pinecones, they have an omnivorous diet. They are not seen as strong excavators and instead flake away bark from burnt or dying trees.
This is how they forage and probe for insects such as beetles, spiders, larvae, and ants, instead of hammering.
They forage for insects amongst needle clusters in confers as well. These birds also will drill wells into trees to drink tree sap.
These woodpeckers will also visit suet feeders within their habitats and range.
6. White-Headed Woodpeckers Are Thirsty Birds
A diet high in seed content can make a bird thirsty.
White-headed woodpeckers are often seen coming to water edges to drink. They also drink often from puddles, pooling water, creeks, melted snow, and welled-up water in tree hollows.
7. They Have Had Changes In Taxonomic Classification
The ornithologist, John Cassin (1813-1869), first classified the white-headed woodpecker in the genus, Leuconerpes. This means “white creeper” for the way it moved along the trees.
Then, it was reclassified into the Xenopicus genus for its strange features including limited facial patterning.
Today, it is officially called the Dryobates albolarvatus. The Dryobates genus denotes a “tree walker” which includes other woodpeckers such as the downy (Dryobates pubescens) and Nuttall’s (Dryobates nuttallii) woodpeckers.
8. White-Headed Woodpeckers Have A Patchy Range & Habitat
White-headed woodpeckers are permanent residents in parts of southwestern Canada and the western United States. Their populations are not abundant in these areas.
These birds are found in parts of British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and California in mountainous coniferous forests that have large numbers of pine trees and open canopies.
They typically inhabit areas with old, large growths of ponderosa pine and sugar pine trees and other large cone-producing trees. They also favor areas with recently burned trees.
9. They Are Monogamous During Breeding Seasons
It is thought that the white-headed woodpecker is like other woodpecker species in that they are paired and monogamous. They stay together for at least the breeding season, if not longer.
The male courts the female with an aerial display and its sharp call.
10. White-Headed Woodpeckers Build A Nest Together
As previously mentioned, white-headed woodpeckers are weak excavators. They need soft or damaged wood to create a cavity for roosting and nesting.
The paired birds work together to create a nest cavity by tapping around a pre-existing unused hole. Or, they form one in a soft, rotten, dead, or burned tree, snag, or fallen log. They rarely use live trees for nesting.
Nests are typically 6 to 15 feet from the ground. They create a new cavity each year but may resume the same tree or snag. Old cavities are reserved for roosting.
Check out this video of a male white-headed woodpecker quietly excavating a hole:
11. Paired White-Headed Woodpeckers Raise Offspring Together
Once the nest cavity is built, it is lined with wood chips.
The female lays 3 to 6 eggs, and both take turns incubating them for about 14 days. Males tend to incubate during the night. The white eggs are often stained with pine pitch.
Once the hatchlings are born the parents take turns keeping the cavity nest clean and feeding the chicks. The babies stay in the nest for about 26 days until they are ready to fly.
Each pair of woodpeckers only produces 1 brood of chicks each year. If the eggs fail to hatch or are eaten by predators, they do not produce more eggs that year.
12. White-Headed Woodpeckers Have A Small Population At Risk Of Decline
The stability of the white-headed woodpecker population depends upon an adequate supply of soft or burned snags and trees. These trees are ones that they can readily and easily excavate.
Habitat loss and degradation, salvage logging, and fire suppression in dry forests are limiting where they can nest and roost.
The west in particular has issues with wildfires, and measures have been implemented to reduce them. While this is good for the human population, it negatively impacts some species, such as the white-headed woodpecker.
Pine seeds are produced in large quantities by mature pine trees, and pest species such as pine beetles have killed off large areas of pine forests.
As a result, this drastically reduces the food sources available to these woodpeckers. Additionally, younger pine trees are smaller in diameter, unsuitable for cavities, and produce fewer cones.
White-headed woodpeckers are a rare sight to see despite their bold, unpatterned white heads.
They are weak excavators relying on access to mature, old, rotten, dead, or recently burned trees to create cavities for nesting and roosting.
They work together in pairs to raise offspring, taking turns incubating their eggs and feeding the hatchlings.
White-headed woodpeckers cling to pinecones as they pry them open for the seeds inside while keeping their feathers free from sticky tree sap.
These facts and more make the elusive white-headed woodpecker a bird that is fun to know about.