White-headed woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus)

Black, white and red, White-headed woodpecker pecking on a tree trunk
Males of this species have a red patch on their head.
Category: Birds
State status: Candidate
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting tool or email us at  wildlife.data@dfw.wa.gov. Be sure to include a photo of the species for verification and location (latitude/longitude coordinates) of your observation. 

In Washington, the population of white-headed woodpecker is low and declining. White-headed woodpeckers are probably impacted by habitat loss (and degradation) and fire suppression in dry forest landscapes. 

Description and Range

Physical description

The white-headed woodpecker is about 9 inches in length. Its head and throat are white; the body and wings are black with white wing patches. A bright red patch is on the back of the adult male’s head; a paler red patch may be seen on juveniles.

Ecology and life history 

A male white-headed woodpecker on a pine tree with pine cones
A male white-headed woodpecker on a pine tree at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area.

This species uses conifer forests dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and occasionally other tree species such as aspen. Most areas are characterized by wide tree spacing, which produces an open canopy. The species was associated with large-diameter trees and snags in some studies, but recent work also indicates use (including nesting) of smaller trees and snags retained in clearcut harvest units. 

White-headed woodpeckers most frequently roost in cavities, typically in ponderosa pines (live trees and snags), but also roost in spaces behind peeling bark and in crevices within tree trunks. Cavities are also used as winter roosts, and frequently the same cavity is used over an entire season.  

White-headed woodpeckers use both live and dead trees for foraging. Pine seeds are a major part of the species diet, especially in fall and winter. They also consume a variety of insects and other invertebrates.

Live and dead trees are also used for nesting. Males and females share in both incubating their eggs (on average about 5) and feeding of their young. Males roost in the nest cavity with their young until they fledge. 

Geographic range

White-headed woodpeckers occupy dry forests in the range of ponderosa pine in Washington’s eastern Cascade Range, the northeastern forests and in the Blue Mountains. Except for a small area in southern British Columbia, northern Washington represents the northwestern extent of the species’ range. The species is uncommon, and a population estimate is not available. In some areas, individuals may descend to lower elevations during winter, and this is reflected in annual home range estimates some of which exceed several hundred acres.

For worldwide distribution of white-headed woodpecker and other species' information, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. 

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate

Sensitivity of white-headed woodpeckers is influenced by warmer temperatures and precipitation changes that affect prey availability and habitat extent. Warmer temperatures are linked with higher surface-bark insect abundance and enhanced forage opportunities. White-headed woodpeckers require montane coniferous forests dominated by pines, which may be sensitive to precipitation changes and altered wildfire regimes although these impacts could benefit the species (e.g., by providing more snags). Higher nesting and incubation success has been associated with warmer temperatures.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased temperatures
  • Altered fire regimes
  • Changes in precipitation
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Agriculture and aquaculture side effects 
    • Threat: Effects of fire suppression.  
    • Action Needed: Develop and implement dry forest management and restoration programs.  
    • Threat: Loss of ponderosa pine forest (and other dry forests).  
    • Action Needed: Promote protection and effective management of dry forests using a variety of tools.  
  • Resource information collection needs  
    • Threat: Loss of mature ponderosa pine forest (and other dry forests).  
    • Action Needed: Evaluate response of species to dry forest management and restoration efforts.

Resources

WDFW Publications

Other