Living Bird Magazine
Black-backed WoodpeckerPicoides arcticus
- ORDER: Piciformes
- FAMILY: Picidae
Nearly synonymous with burned forests over much of its range, the Black-backed Woodpecker specializes on eating big, juicy wood-boring beetle larvae. It is an inky black bird with a sharp white stripe on its black face, fine black barring on the flanks, and, in males, a yellow crown patch. These enterprising birds locate burned forests just weeks to months after a forest fire and then live off the bounty of insects over the next 5 to 8 years. In areas with fewer fires, they may also use bark beetle outbreaks or bogs.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Over much of their range, the secret to finding Black-backed Woodpeckers boils down to finding burned forests between about 1 and 8 years old. These forests are often bursting with birds and harbor many species of woodpeckers, all but guaranteeing great birding. Look for stands of large, thick-barked trees where patches of bark have been chipped away. Listen for their sharp chip notes (with a bit of a lisp compared to Hairy Woodpeckers) and for drumming that trails off at the end (very similar to American Three-toed). Black-backeds often stay in one place for long periods and forage fairly low on the main trunk, allowing good views.
- Pico Ártico (Spanish)
- Pic à dos noir (French)
- Cool Facts
- Black-backed Woodpeckers often forage on charred, blackish tree trunks, where their dark plumage helps them blend in remarkably well. Some scientists point to this as evidence that severe forest fires have been shaping species for millennia and are a natural part of many landscapes.
- Black-backed Woodpeckers and many other woodpecker species excavate a new nest hole with each nesting attempt. Over time, this habit creates a ready supply of nest holes that can be used by so-called “secondary cavity nesters”—species like chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and owls that nest in tree cavities but cannot excavate their own.
- Black-backed, American Three-toed, and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers have only three toes on each foot; all other woodpeckers have four. It’s been suggested that the loss of the fourth toe allows these species to lean farther back and deliver harder blows to the tree, possibly helping them excavate nest holes in harder (and therefore safer) wood.
- A recent (2010) study of the genetics of Black-backed Woodpecker established that the Oregon/California population and South Dakota Black Hills populations may be distinct from the boreal population. Both of these small U.S. populations face conservation challenges and were proposed for federal Endangered status in 2012. More research is needed to see if these populations can be distinguished as subspecies.
- During the 1950s and 1960s, Dutch elm disease ravaged elm trees planted in urban areas in the Northeast. Black-backed Woodpeckers moved into many affected towns and cities, far south of their normal range, to feed on beetles that infested the dying trees. In most such areas, the woodpeckers had not been detected previously—and have not been seen since.
- A curious aspect of the Black-backed Woodpecker’s distribution is its absence from the central and southern Rocky Mountains, even though it occurs throughout the Sierra Nevada of central California.
- During the nonbreeding season, Black-backed Woodpeckers occasionally move to areas south of the regular breeding range. Winter records have occurred in Iowa, central Illinois, northern Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware. These irruptions have been attributed to changes in abundance of their wood-boring insect prey or to overpopulation of the woodpeckers following an insect outbreak.
- The oldest recorded Black-backed Woodpecker was a male, and was at least 4 years, 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Idaho.