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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Acorn Woodpecker

Melanerpes formicivorus ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Reminiscent of a troupe of wide-eyed clowns, Acorn Woodpeckers live in large groups in western oak woodlands. Their social lives are endlessly fascinating: they store thousands of acorns each year by jamming them into specially made holes in trees. A group member is always on alert to guard the hoard from thieves, while others race through the trees giving parrotlike waka-waka calls. Their breeding behavior is equally complicated, with multiple males and females combining efforts to raise young in a single nest.

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Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Acorn Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with straight, spike-like bills and stiff, wedge-shaped tails used for support as the birds cling to tree trunks.

  • Color Pattern

    These striking birds are mostly black above with a red cap, creamy white face, and black patch around the bill. In flight, they show three patches of white: one in each wing and one on the rump. Females have less red on the crown than males.

  • Behavior

    Acorn Woodpeckers are very unusual woodpeckers that live in large groups, hoard acorns, and breed cooperatively. Group members gather acorns by the hundreds and wedge them into holes they’ve made in a tree trunk or telephone pole. Acorn Woodpeckers also spend considerable time catching insects on the wing. They give raucous, scratchy waka-waka calls frequently.

  • Habitat

    These woodpeckers live in oak and mixed oak-conifer forests on slopes and mountains in the Southwest and West Coast. They’re tolerant of humans, and you can find them in towns where there are acorns and suitable places to store them.

Range Map Help

Acorn Woodpecker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Large, dark woodpecker
    • Solid black back
    • "Clown-like" facial pattern with red crown and glowing yellow eye
    • White breast streaked with black
    • © Bob Gunderson, Winters, California, February 2011
  • Adult female

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Large and heavy-billed woodpecker
    • Distinctive facial pattern with glowing yellow eye
    • Black streaked breast
    • Female shows less extensive red on crown
    • © Fritz Fucik, Cartago, Costa Rica, June 2011
  • Adult male

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Large, black-backed woodpecker
    • Male has extensive red crown
    • Glowing yellow eye with contrasting facial pattern
    • White patch visible on folded wing
    • © Glenn Bartley, Socorro, New Mexico, November 2010
  • Adult male

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Large, heavy-billed woodpecker
    • Distinctive facial pattern with pale yellow eye
    • Male has extensive red crown
    • Solid black back with white rump and white patch on wings
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Los Altos, California, June 2010
  • Adult

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Solid black back
    • White breast streaked with black
    • Contrasting "clown-like" facial pattern
    • Red crown
    • © Kat, San Dimas, California, October 2010
  • Adult

    Acorn Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Large, black-backed woodpecker
    • White patch usually visible on folded wing
    • Red crown
    • Obvious pale yellow eye
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Cochise County, Arizona, August 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Acorn Woodpeckers can be easily told from most woodpeckers by their combination of a solid-black back and red on the head. The Pileated Woodpecker shows this pattern, but is a much larger bird with a longer neck and a flaming red crest. Red-breasted Sapsuckers have considerable white barring on the back, and the head is entirely red. White-headed Woodpeckers tend to occur in ponderosa pine forests. They have a fully white face and throat, and the rump is black, not white. Red-headed Woodpeckers of eastern North America do not overlap in range with Acorn Woodpeckers. They have fully red heads, gleaming white underparts, and a large white patch on the lower back and wings.

Backyard Tips

Acorn Woodpeckers may visit seed and suet feeders near oak woodlands within their range. If Acorn Woodpeckers have discovered your wood siding and begun making holes in it, they can be very difficult to get rid of. People have had some success with hanging strips of shiny ribbon from the eaves or putting balloons in front of the siding to scare the birds away; the surest fix is to switch to an impenetrable siding material. Here's more about keeping away woodpeckers.

Find This Bird

Acorn Woodpeckers are usually pretty easy to find if you take a short walk through open oak or pine-oak forests in their range. Listen for their loud, parrotlike squawks and look for Acorn Woodpeckers perched atop bare treetops. In flight, pay attention to the pattern of three black-and-white flashes—one on each wing, plus the white rump. Keep an eye on the trees as you walk, and you might find one riddled with acorn-filled holes all the way up the trunk and main branches. This is the granary tree, the main food storage “pantry” created and used by communal groups of these fascinating woodpeckers.

You Might Also Like

Going Nutty for Acorn Woodpeckers: Story and photographs in Living Bird magazine

Free love and family conflict in cooperative Acorn Woodpeckers: Story in BirdScope.