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Perhaps the least studied of all woodpeckers, the White-headed Woodpecker is found only in the montane coniferous forests of the west coast of North America. Its striking black body and white head makes it easily distinguishable from other woodpeckers throughout its range. The species is limited by suitable habitat, defined by large pine trees that have large cones and seeds for feeding and snags for nesting cavities, which is threatened by modern forestry practices.
Named for its white head, throat, and crown which contrasts with the all black body, and also has a white wing patch. Adult males have a red spot on the back of the head between the white crown and the black of the nape. Juveniles also have a white head with varying degrees of red patch on back of head, a duller black body, and sparser white wing patches. Both sexes give a call throughout the year often described as "pee-dink" or "pee-dee-dink". This call can be interspersed with drumming consisting of an even roll of 15-30 beats in 0.5-1.5 seconds.
Closely associated with coniferous pine forests in the mountains along the west coast from southern British Columbia to southern California, and inland to western Nevada and Idaho. Especially associated with ponderosa pine from which it eats the seeds. Audubon Important Bird Areas that support White-headed Woodpeckers year-round include Washington's Umtanum Creek Valley IBA and British Columbia's Kilpoola Lake Area IBA. No population trends can be discerned from Breeding Bird Survey data as there are too few survey routes. However, populations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are decreasing and becoming increasingly fragmented as the forests are logged. The species' occurrence in British Columbia went undetected until 1890. Subsequent reports of White-headed Woodpeckers in the province give the appearance of an increasing population trend, but are more likely representative of increased awareness for the species. Populations are most abundant where more than one type of pine tree is dominant.
This sppecies is mostly sedentary, with few individuals moving in the winter to lower elevations adjacent to breeding areas or within suitable coniferous forests. If individuals do move to lower elevations in the nonbreeding season, they use chaparral-dominated habitat. Breeding habitat consists of montane coniferous forests with ponderosa pine, sugar pine, lodgepole pine, white fir, incense cedar, Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, and Douglas-fir being the most important tree species. Habitat is characterized by a relatively open canopy (50-70%) and sparse understory, abundance of mature pines that will supply seeds for consumption, and snags and stumps for nesting. These habitat requirements can be met in areas that have been recently burned or cut, but there must still be large standing trees. The bird probes needle clusters and flakes and gleans trunks and branches for pine seeds, beetles, ants, and scale insects. It is rare for this species to drill into dead or decaying trees, which helps distinguish it from its close relative the Hairy Woodpecker. It nests in cavities of snags, stumps, logs, and dead trees usually within 3 meters of the ground. Cavities are typically not reused from year-to-year. They begin excavation in April and early May. They lay only one brood of 4-5 eggs in May or June.
Habitat destruction is the greatest threat to this species. As with most other woodpeckers, it is limited by the availability of snags, which are often removed with modern forestry practices. Other modern forestry practices affecting this species include clearcutting, planting of even-aged stands, fire suppression (which encourages replacement of pines by firs), and forest fragmentation. This species is intolerant of humans near nest cavity.
The White-headed Woodpecker is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Idaho, a Critical Species in Oregon, and as a Sensitive Species by the U.S. Forest Service in the intermountain and northern regions of the west. It is proposed for listing in Washington and is nationally listed as endangered in British Columbia. A conservation strategy for Idaho involves management of habitat through altering forestry practices. Specifically, the strategy recommends maintaining 45 large snags per 40 hectares of suitable habitat in order to support 5 pairs of White-headed Woodpeckers.
The White-headed Woodpecker is listed as a priority species in Partners in Flight's Bird Conservation Plan for the Northern Rocky Mountains, an area where the species has undergone significant decline (http://www.partnersinflight.org). The population objective for the plan is to maintain known breeding sites and increase the current geographic range by establishing breeding populations (>10 pairs/area) in at least 10 new locations (5 in Blue Mountains and 5 in Northern Glaciated Mountains) in the next 25 years (by 2025).
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of White-headed 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/.
Information on where White-headed Woodpeckers occur 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.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of wintering populations of White-headed Woodpeckers 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 White-headed Woodpecker. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
Audubon and our partners in conservation coordinated the submission of over two million comments to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would protect habitat for White-headed Woodpecker and many other species. Unfortunately, implementation of the Rule has been stalled and attempts are being made to weaken it. To help in protecting these vital habitats visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/latestnews.html#roadless
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 White-headed Woodpecker. To learn more about Birds in Forested Landscapes, and how you can participate in the project, visit: http://birds.cornell.edu/bfl/
Garrett,K. L., M. G. Raphael, and R. D. Dixon. 1996. White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 252 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.