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Photo by Peter LaTourrette.
A permanent resident of oak woodlands, the Nuttall's Woodpecker's range barely extends outside of California. Its limited range, low density, and close association with oak woodlands and riparian zones make it vulnerable to development that encroaches on its habitat. Much of this species' biology has received only superficial or incidental attention.
The Nuttall's Woodpecker is very similar to the Ladder-backed Woodpecker, but their ranges only barely overlap. The back and wings are barred black-and-white, and the outer tail is spotted rather than barred. The undersides are white with spotting on the flanks. The red on the male Nuttall's head extends only to mid-crown while the red on the Ladder-backed extends to the forehead. Nuttall's show more black on the face and thicker black bars on the back and outer tail feathers than do Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. The female Nuttall's is similar to the male, but lacks the red on the crown.
Typical drumming is steady, medium speed, and relatively long - noticeably longer and faster than Downy Woodpecker. The contact call is a sharp, rising, two- or three- note pitik, occasionally a single-note pik; the quality is much like the Hairy Woodpecker. A rattle call is a level and steady pitikikik.
Nuttall's Woodpecker is a permanent resident with a range limited to west of the southern Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, extending from northern California to Mexico's Baja California. Extrapolating from Breeding Bird Atlas work in California gives a crude estimate of about 100,000 - 200,000 individuals across the entire range. There is little information regarding trends, Breeding Bird Survey data for 1966 - 2001 show no significant, long-term trends.
Nuttall's Woodpeckers are often hidden in foliage and may be heard before they are seen. They frequent a mix of deciduous riparian and adjacent oak habitats, occurring in oak woodlands, live oak forests, and chaparral. Also found in canyons with sycamores, alders, cottonwoods, and bay trees growing along streams lined with live oaks. Snags and dead limbs are required for nest excavation. The area immediately around a nest tree is defended, especially against Ladder-backed and Downy woodpeckers. The male excavates a cavity in a dead limb or trunk of oak, willow, sycamore, cottonwood, elder, or alder tree in riparian habitats. The cavity may range anywhere from 3 - 65 feet (1 - 20 meters) above the ground.
Both sexes incubate the eggs, alternating during the day and the males incubating at night. They young hatch after 14 days, and for the next 29 days the nestlings are tended to by both parents. Young are able to fly upon fledging.
Although Nuttall's Woodpeckers forage preferentially in oaks, acorns make up only a small part of their diet. They creep diagonally across the trunks and branches as they search in crevices and underneath bark; often hanging upside down under limbs as they probe for insects, such as beetles, caterpillars, ants. They also take fruits, berries, poison oak seeds, nuts, and sap. When foraging, males tend to work on the trunk and larger branches, while females use the smaller branches.
Habitat loss from development is the greatest threat to the species. Sudden Oak Death fungal disease, which has killed tens of thousands of oaks in California, may cause the loss of much habitat for the Nuttall's Woodpecker though in the short-term it could increase availability of nesting cavities because of the prevalence of dead and infected trees. However, efforts to prevent the spread of the oak pathogen often include removing all dead and infected trees.
Audubon's Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary, near Healdsburg in Sonoma County, protects Nuttall's Woodpecker habitat. Its 1,400 acres of oak woodland and mixed evergreen forest is considered by naturalists to be one of the finest examples of oak-savannah grassland and low altitude conifer forest in the northern California Coast Range.
California Partners in Flight recently created The Oak Woodland Bird Conservation Plan to guide land- management policy and action for California's oak woodland habitats and the wildlife that inhabit them. The conservation plan includes increasing the number of dead standing oak species in the Nuttall's Woodpecker's range. Live trees with dead limbs as well as diseased trees in which the heartwood decays are especially important. Oak woodlands should be thinned to contain a canopy cover of 40-70%.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Nuttall's Woodpecker as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/.
Support local land trusts, government agencies, and other organizations working to preserve oak forests in your area. Contact your state Important Bird Areas coordinator (http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/state_coords.html) to find out if there are sites in your area important for Nuttall's Woodpecker that need increased protection.
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for Nuttall's Woodpecker, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of wintering populations of Nuttall's Woodpecker and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Nuttall's Woodpecker. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc
Information on where Nuttall's Woodpecker occurs and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the USDA Forest Service coordinate Birds in Forested Landscapes, a citizen-science project that links volunteer birders and professional ornithologists in a study of the habitat requirements of North American forest birds, including Nuttall's Woodpecker. To learn more about Birds in Forested Landscapes, and how you can participate in the project, visit: http://birds.cornell.edu/bfl/
Birds in Forested Landscapes Species Account: Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttalli). Cornell Lab of Ornithology. http://birds.cornell.edu/bfl/speciesaccts/nutwoo.html
California Partners in Flight. 2002. Version 1.1. The oak woodland bird conservation plan: a strategy for protecting and managing oak woodland habitats and associated birds in California. (S. Zack, lead author). Port Reyes Bird Observatory, Stinson Beach, CA.
Kaufman, K.. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.
Lowther, P.E. 2000. Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttalli). In The Birds of North America, No. 555 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.