White-headed Woodpecker

Picoides albolarvatus

Physical Characteristics

This is the only North American woodpecker with a distinctive white head, throat and crown contrasted with a nearly all black body. Narrow white wing patches are visible both when in flight and perched. Adult males also sport a small red spot on the back of the head between the white of the crown and black nape. Juveniles show little color variation from the adults aside from a duller shade of black, sparser wing patches, and varying prominence of red. This medium-sized bird calls all year, regardless of sex.


They are highly limited by suitable habitat, nesting in forests with large-diameter trees and snags indicative of old growth systems. In particular, montane coniferous forests with sparse understory and a relatively open canopy, dominated by trees like ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and white fir are preferred breeding habitats for this woodpecker. Abundance of these mature pines is crucial in order to provide a food source as well as snags and stumps used for nesting. These birds can thrive in recently burned or cut areas provided that large standing trees are still present.

Food Sources

White-headed woodpeckers probe needle clusters and excavate conifer cones for seeds as well as prying away tree bark in search of insects. You will rarely find these birds drilling into dead or decaying trees like most woodpeckers do.

Nesting and Migration

Nest cavities are often within only 10 feet of the ground. Individual cavities are typically not reused from year-to-year, but the birds often use the same tree. Both sexes begin excavating the nest cavity in April and early May, laying a brood of 4-5 eggs in May or June. Incubation typically only lasts about 2 weeks and young fledge in about a month. White-headed Woodpeckers are generally considered permanent residents, but are much more difficult to find in the winter months; some may migrate to lower elevations.



Modern forestry practices and habitat fragmentation in ponderosa pine forests have contributed to population decline in much of Washington. The Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge has been successful in encouraging white-headed woodpeckers to breed by protecting these ponderosa pine habitats while purposefully retaining snags necessary for nest sites. This woodpecker is currently listed as a “Sensitive Species” by the U.S Forest Service in the intermountain and northern regions of the western United States, a “Critical Species” in Oregon, and a “Species of Special Concern” in Idaho. It is listed nationally as an endangered species in British Colombia and it proposed for listing in the state of Washington.

Facts About White-headed Woodpecker

Nests in tree holes and prefers to make holes in dead trees, snags, stumps and even leaning or fallen logs.

Both male and female incubate the eggs with the male doing most of the work after nightfall.