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7 Fascinating Facts About the Black-Backed Woodpecker

The black-backed woodpecker, scientifically known as Picoides arcticus, is a fascinating bird that is widely distributed throughout North America. Known for its striking appearance and unique behaviors, this bird species is a favorite among bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.


Field Identification

The black-backed woodpecker is a small to medium-sized bird that measures between 8.3 to 9.4 inches in length. It has a black back with white bars and a white belly.

The bird’s head is also black, with a red patch on the crown of the male. The female’s crown is black.

The black-backed woodpecker has a chisel-shaped bill that is ideal for drilling into trees, which is the preferred method of feeding.

Similar Species

The black-backed woodpecker can be easily confused with other woodpecker species due to its similar appearance. A primary distinguishing factor is the black-back and white barred pattern on its feathers.

Other woodpecker species with a similar appearance include the three-toed woodpecker and the American three-toed woodpecker. However, these birds have distinct markings on their heads that easily differentiate them from the black-backed woodpecker.


The black-backed woodpecker has a unique plumage that allows bird enthusiasts to identify their age and sex. The male black-backed woodpecker has a red patch on its crown, while the female lacks this feature.

The juvenile black-backed woodpecker has a similar appearance to the adult female, but its crown is black instead of red.


The black-backed woodpecker undergoes an annual molt in autumn in preparation for the upcoming winter season. During the molt, the bird replaces its feathers, shedding the old ones and growing new ones.

Molting is necessary to maintain feather quality, and it is also critical for thermoregulation during colder months.


The black-backed woodpecker is a fascinating bird that is admired by many for its striking appearance and unique behaviors. This bird species is a favorite among bird enthusiasts and nature lovers, as it is easy to identify and observe.

With its distinct black-back and white barred pattern, the black-backed woodpecker is a sight to behold, and it is an excellent addition to any birdwatcher’s list.

Systematics History

The black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) was first described by Johann Reinhold Forster in 1772. Since then, various ornithologists and taxonomists have studied the species, leading to significant changes in its classification.

Geographic Variation

The black-backed woodpecker has a wide distribution across North America, from Alaska and Canada to the Rocky Mountains in the United States. Due to this large range, the bird has developed distinct geographic variations in its appearance and behavior.


There are seven recognized subspecies of the black-backed woodpecker, as listed below:

– P. a.

arcticus: Known as the Alaska black-backed woodpecker, this subspecies is found in northern Alaska and the Yukon. – P.

a. albolarvatus: Found in the northern Rocky Mountains, this subspecies has white feathers on its lower back and rump.

– P. a.

dorsalis: This subspecies is found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and has a slightly smaller bill compared to other subspecies. – P.

a. frozenensis: Known as the Newfoundland black-backed woodpecker, this subspecies is limited to Newfoundland and has a smaller body size and shorter bill.

– P. a.

harrisi: This subspecies is found in the southeastern United States and has a darker back and a shorter bill. – P.

a. littoralis: This subspecies is found along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Oregon and has a distinctive white stripe on its wings.

– P. a.

mesophilus: This subspecies is found in the Rocky Mountains and has a darker back compared to other subspecies, as well as a broader bill.

Related Species

The black-backed woodpecker is part of the Picoides genus, which includes other woodpecker species such as the three-toed woodpecker, the American three-toed woodpecker, and the white-headed woodpecker. These woodpeckers share similar appearances and behaviors, but they can be differentiated by notable characteristics such as markings on their heads and body sizes.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The black-backed woodpecker’s distribution has changed over time due to a variety of factors, including forest fires, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. In the 1800s, the species was common across much of the eastern United States, but by the mid-1900s, populations had declined significantly due to habitat loss.

Despite this decline, the black-backed woodpecker has benefited from the increased prevalence of large forest fires, which create ideal habitats for the species. In recent years, the black-backed woodpecker has faced significant threats to its habitat due to climate change.

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns have caused increased insect outbreaks, which can lead to tree mortality, ultimately reducing the availability of suitable nesting locations for the black-backed woodpecker. As a result, populations of the bird have continued to decline in certain areas, presenting a challenge for conservation efforts.


The black-backed woodpecker is a fascinating species that has undergone significant changes in its classification and distribution over time. With distinct geographic variations and a wide range of subspecies, the bird is a noteworthy subject of study for ornithologists and taxonomists.

Despite its ability to adapt to forest fires, the black-backed woodpecker faces significant challenges due to habitat loss and the impacts of climate change, making conservation efforts critical for the preservation of this species.


The black-backed woodpecker is typically found in boreal forests and montane forests with coniferous trees, such as spruce, pine, and fir. They prefer mature forests with standing dead trees, which are excellent sources of food and nesting sites.

In areas where forest fires or other disturbances have occurred, black-backed woodpeckers are commonly found. These areas provide abundant dead wood that is ideal for foraging and nesting.

The black-backed woodpecker’s habitat requirements make them particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by logging and urban sprawl. Suitable habitat for the black-backed woodpecker has declined over the past few decades, especially in the eastern United States, where much of the original mature forest has been lost to development and logging.

Movements and Migration

The black-backed woodpecker is generally classified as a resident bird, meaning they do not undertake long-distance migration. However, some populations may move south or lower in elevation during the winter months to find abundant food sources.

For instance, in the northern parts of their range, the black-backed woodpecker may move into more southern areas in the winter months since the colder conditions make it difficult to find food sources. The extent of these movements varies between populations and is dependent on habitat quality and availability.

During the breeding season, black-backed woodpeckers are typically non-migratory, remaining in a relatively small breeding area of 60 to 120 acres. Although they are non-migratory, some populations undertake short-distance movements, particularly in response to changes in resource availability.

In areas where forest fires occur, black-backed woodpeckers may expand their range and move into new areas, exploiting the newly created habitat that is ideal for foraging and nesting. These movements can be significant, and individuals can travel up to 25 miles from their original breeding area to newly created habitats, such as burn sites.


The black-backed woodpecker is a fascinating bird found in boreal and montane forests across North America. The bird’s habitat preferences make it particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and fragmentation, which can result in population declines.

While the black-backed woodpecker is generally considered a resident bird, some populations may move seasonally in response to changes in resource availability and habitat quality. In areas where forest fires occur, black-backed woodpeckers can expand their range and move into new areas, utilizing the newly created habitat to forage and nest.

Overall, understanding the movements and habitat requirements of this species is important for conservation efforts and the preservation of this fascinating bird.

Diet and Foraging


The black-backed woodpecker is an active forager, using its chisel-shaped bill to dig into bark and wood to access insects, especially wood-boring beetles, ants, and larvae. The bird’s strong bill allows it to break through bark and wood to capture its prey, which it then extracts using a long hook-like tongue coated in sticky saliva.

The black-backed woodpecker will also capture insects in mid-air using its acrobatic flight capabilities.


The black-backed woodpecker’s diet primarily consists of insects and their larvae, supplemented by occasional fruit and seeds. The bird is particularly fond of mature forests with plenty of standing dead trees, where it can find abundant food sources.

While this food makes up the majority of the bird’s diet, it will also consume tree sap, nectar, and occasionally small animals, such as lizards or mice.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The black-backed woodpecker has a unique metabolism that allows it to maintain high body temperature during foraging. This bird species has an incredibly efficient metabolism that allows it to produce and retain heat, even in cold weather conditions.

Black-backed woodpeckers can maintain their internal temperature at a high, steady rate by using their foraging behavior to generate warmth. By rapidly tapping their bills on trees, they generate friction that warms their heads and necks, allowing them to move through colder environments without losing critical body heat.

They also have an efficient circulatory system that pumps warm blood to their feet, keeping them warm in the snow and enabling them to navigate across a cold forest floor.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Black-backed woodpeckers are less vocal than other woodpecker species, but they still make various sounds to communicate with other birds. The bird’s most common call is a sharp “kik-kik-kik” sound, which is often used for territorial communication.

This sound has a rapid tempo with each “kik” lasting for less than a second. Aside from their territorial call, black-backed woodpeckers also have a drumming sound, which they make by rapidly tapping their bills on trees to attract mates and establish territories.

The drumming sound can be very loud and is often used to communicate with other woodpeckers over large distances. Black-backed woodpeckers may also make other vocalizations, including soft murmurs and squeaks.

However, these sounds are less common and are often used in close communication with other birds.


The black-backed woodpecker is a fascinating bird species that has unique adaptations that enable it to survive in its chosen habitat. With a diet consisting primarily of insects and a unique metabolism that allows it to maintain a high body temperature during foraging skills the black-backed woodpecker is well-adapted to forest life.

This bird’s sounds and vocal behavior are less varied than other woodpecker species, but its key territorial and drumming calls help it to communicate with other birds over long distances. Studying the diet, foraging, and vocalization of the black-backed woodpecker provides insight not only into the behavior of this bird species, but also into the ecology of forest ecosystems.



The black-backed woodpecker is an arboreal bird species that moves primarily through trees using its powerful legs, sharp claws, and stiff tail feathers for support. With its acrobatic flight capabilities and powerful flying muscles, the black-backed woodpecker can dart through the forest, twisting and turning in a manner that allows it to avoid obstacles while hunting for prey.

Self Maintenance

The black-backed woodpecker’s self-maintenance behaviors include preening and bathing to keep its feathers clean and remove parasites. The bird will preen its feathers with its bill, making sure each feather is in place and well-groomed.

The black-backed woodpecker also bathes regularly to keep its feathers clean, typically splashing around in streams or puddles to remove dirt and dust.

Agonistic Behavior

The black-backed woodpecker is known for its aggressive, territorial behavior towards other birds, particularly other woodpecker species. When another bird encroaches on its territory, the black-backed woodpecker will use displays and vocalizations to intimidate the intruder, often using rapid drumming to make its presence known.

If necessary, the bird will physically confront the intruder, using its powerful bill to fight off any threats to its territory or nest site.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, the black-backed woodpecker engages in a variety of sexual behaviors to attract mates and establish mating territories. These behaviors include courtship displays, such as calling and drumming, as well as physical displays, such as posturing and head-bobbing.

After a suitable mate is identified, pairs may engage in mutual preening, with each bird helping to groom the other in preparation for breeding.


Black-backed woodpeckers nest in cavities that they dig into dead trees or snags. They excavate a hole in the tree using their chisel-like bill to create a cavity for nesting.

The bird may dig multiple holes before selecting the most suitable one for breeding. Once they find a suitable site, the female lays between three and six eggs, which hatch after around 12 days.

After hatching, both parents care for the young, feeding them insects and other small animals until they are old enough to leave the nest. The young typically fledge after around 25 to 28 days, although they may remain with their parents for several weeks after fledging.

Demography and Populations

The black-backed woodpecker is not currently considered a globally threatened species, but its populations have declined in some areas due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by logging and urbanization. The species is considered a priority for conservation efforts, particularly in areas where populations are declining, as well as in areas prone to forest fires, as these provide essential habitats for the species.

Scientists have identified several factors essential to maintaining healthy black-backed woodpecker populations, including the protection and restoration of mature forest habitats, the promotion of habitat diversity, and the creation of new habitats through controlled forest fires. Identifying and monitoring population trends will be crucial to protecting these fascinating woodpeckers and their habitats now and in the future.


The black-backed woodpecker is a fascinating bird species with unique behavioral adaptations that enable it to survive in a variety of forest environments. With its territorial behavior and acrobatic flight, this bird species stands out from other woodpeckers and is a subject of study for ornithologists and nature enthusiasts alike.

Understanding the black-backed woodpecker’s breeding behavior and population dynamics is essential for conservation efforts aimed at protecting this fascinating bird and its forest habitats. The black-backed woodpecker is a unique bird species with fascinating behavioral adaptations that enable it to thrive in forest habitats across North America.

This bird’s habitat preferences and diet make it vulnerable to habitat destruction and climate change, making conservation efforts crucial to its preservation. Studying the black-backed woodpecker’s behavior, vocalizations, feeding, and breeding habits provides insight into the ecology of forest ecosystems and highlights the importance of protecting these habitats.

The survival of the black-backed woodpecker rests upon our ability to understand its unique biology and habitats and implement conservation measures to protect it for generations to come.

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