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White-headed Woodpecker Life History



White-headed Woodpeckers nest in pine forests of mountains of western North America. They’re especially associated with old-growth ponderosa pine and sugar pine, ideally with partly open canopies, limited understory, and an abundant pine seed crop. They’re also often found in recently burned forests. Like most woodpeckers, they need dead trees for nesting. Other tree species found in their nesting habitats include lodgepole pine, Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, western white pine, white fir, red fir, incense cedar, Douglas-fir, quaking aspen, black cottonwood, white alder, and black oak. Pines with small cones (and small seeds), such as lodgepole pine, do not usually have nesting White-headed Woodpeckers. This species wanders after the breeding season to a limited extent, probably searching out areas with abundant insects or pine seed crops.

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White-headed Woodpeckers eat pine seeds, which they extract from cones by prying or hammering, usually while clinging to the cone. They sometimes consume seeds while on cones but usually remove the seed and take it to a favored location to break apart and eat. Among known pine species that provide food are ponderosa, sugar, Coulter, and Jeffrey pines, rarely knobcone pine or white fir. They also consume some pine sap by making rows of shallow holes (“sapwells”), much like a sapsucker, usually in small trees. When foraging for insects during the warmer months, White-headed Woodpeckers forage in most parts of the tree, scaling bark with blows of the bill (and sometimes the feet), and looking and probing crevices and pine needle clusters for prey. Males in some populations forage higher up in trees and more actively than females, and the sexes sometimes show different food habits. During the warmer months, both consume adult and larval insects, especially ants, termites, beetles, cicadas, and scale insects. Sometimes, like Downy Woodpeckers, they search for seeds or insects in lower vegetation such as mullein. Like most other woodpeckers, they will visit suet feeders in backyards.

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Nest Placement


The male selects the nest site, usually in a dead conifer or in a dead portion of a living conifer (pine or fir), less often in a deciduous tree, and about 8 feet above ground on average.

Nest Description

Both male and female excavate the nest, a cavity that averages about 5.1 inches in diameter and 8.3 inches deep. The entrance hole is about 1.8 inches in diameter.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-9 eggs
Egg Description:


Condition at Hatching:

Naked and helpless.

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Bark Forager

In spring, White-headed Woodpeckers begin drumming to mark nesting territories. Pairs become much more vocal and active before egg laying, as they prepare the nest cavity. White-headed Woodpeckers appear to be monogamous in their mating system, and in some cases pairs remain and roost together year-round. Pairs often call or drum to stay in contact. As in other woodpecker species, courtship-type displays may also serve as threat displays against others of the species that trespass into the territory. These displays include raising the crest, swinging the head, and flicking or spreading the wings, as well as a slow, exaggerated “moth” flight, which males direct at other males but also perform after mating. Fights between White-headed Woodpeckers are uncommon. Males and females confront rivals by chasing them quickly up a trunk or perching close by, then “freezing” with extended necks, as the rivals eye each other in silence. Both sexes incubate the eggs (the male usually at night), and both tend and defend the young through fledging. The young leave the parents by autumn.

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Low Concern

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, White-headed Woodpecker numbers increased by an estimated 1.1% per year between 1968 and 2015, suggesting a cumulative increase of about 77% during that period. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 240,000 and rates the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Although population trends of this woodpecker seem positive, the species is listed as Critical in Idaho and Sensitive in Oregon, where the logging and fragmentation of old-growth ponderosa pine forests have been extensive. Clearcutting, snag removal, fire suppression, and even-age stand management are all forestry practices that suppress or reduce populations of this species.

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Garrett, Kimball L., Martin G. Raphael and Rita D. Dixon. (1996). White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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