California woodpeckers span the entire range of native woodpecker genera.
The fifteen listed species are mostly year round residents and most species tend to easily take to backyard feeders. Those two facts translates into great picture taking opportunities for residents and tourists alike.
Flickers (genus Colaptes) rank as one of the most common woodpeckers in the United States. They have a presence in every single state, and they adapt to residential areas with little trouble.
The West Coast variant is named the Red-shafted Northern Flicker. The color designation refers to the under the wing color of their tail and wing feathers. California hosts the Red-shafted Northern Flicker, pictured at the top of the page.
Flickers are the ground feeders of the woodpecker family. They prefer open habitats such as fields and residential areas because they supply them with their primary food sources such as insects, seeds and berries. The male is distinguished from the female by the red patch on the cheek.
Popular birds, they are welcome at many back yard feeders and especially enjoy a snack of suet and water. With a life that often exceeds the five year mark, homeowners might expect a long term relationship with any flickers they might attract to the back yard feeder.
The Gilded Flicker is the second Colaptes species documented in the United States. Unlike the Northern Flicker, the Gilded Flicker is a regional specialty bird of the Arizona desert. The picture shows the gray face and red mustache of the male and it’s similar to the look of the male Red-shafted Northern Flicker. The yellow wings under the tail resemble the yellow wings of the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.
They are year round residents of their area and cavity nest in Saguaro cacti or any larger trees in their territory. Like other flickers they are ground foragers. They are also well adapted to residential areas. There is a slight overlap into the Southeaster corner of California.
The red crested head and white stripes across the face makes it difficult to mistake the Pileated Woodpecker for any other species. It’s the only species in the Dryocopus genus in the United Sates and probably the largest woodpecker in any area.
Pileated Woodpeckers are habitat adaptable. That fact partially explains their range. With the exception of the Rocky Mountain states and the Midwest, they can be found from coast to coast. They need some dense forested area for habitat. In the West, they prefer old growth habitat and in the East they can adapt to the younger forests.
They are described as both shy and adapted to human environments. Their attitude toward humans probably depends on the particulars of their territory. In instances where they breed and live in non-residential areas, they can be shy. There are also ample examples of their being enticed to backyard bird feeders.
Six Melanerpes woodpecker species nest among North America’s wooded areas. The Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), perhaps the best known California species, inhabits oak groves, where it spends its days gathering acorns. Once gathered, the acorns get stored in tree holes or nearby wooden structures such as fences and telephone poles. Unlike most woodpecker species, both the male and female have a red crown.
Western states provide a very good habitat for a variety of uncommon woodpeckers. Mountains and larger tracks of old growth forest, especially Ponderosa Pine suit the Lewis’s Woodpecker needs.
The picture shows another of the woodpecker’s special features. More than any other native species, the purple to red hue on the feathers of the Lewis’s Woodpecker makes it stand out. The greenish head feathers and gray collar and chest compliment the dark wings and tail.
In the wild, they consume a variety of common insects in their territory, including ants, bees and wasps. In fall and winter, they focus on acorns and fruit, so rural homeowners in their territory might be able to entice them to the feeder. Otherwise, they are not categorized as your typical feeder bird.
Gila Woodpeckers are another of the limited range Melanerpes species in the United States. Southern Arizona and the Saguaro Desert define their territorial boundaries. There is a bit of overflow population in the neighboring states of California and New Mexico.
Saguaro cacti and other large trees in their territory provide ample places for their cavity nests. They tend to eat a variety of insects, fruits and nuts, whatever is in season. Additionally, they are very adaptable birds and readily take to residential areas. That makes it quite easy to entice them to feeders.
Gila Woodpeckers also look different from other Melanerpes species such as the Acorn Woodpecker and Red-headed woodpecker. The picture shows the bird’s rather bland looking tan feathers. The male has a red crown on the top of the head.
Woodpecker common names often tell the physical story of the species. It’s no surprise that the White-headed Woodpecker has white feathers on the head. Otherwise they are similar looking to other woodpeckers with black feathers on the body and a white patch on the wings. Adult males have a red patch on the nape. Juveniles resemble adults, but have a patch of red on top of their white head, more broken white patch on the wing, and duller black in color.
They are an comparatively uncommon species that make their homes in Western pine forests. They feed on pine seeds.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with the Black-backed woodpecker. They are not your typical feeder bird. Rather their preferred habitat is the Northern Boreal forests, especially those that suffere some type of damage. That’s the case because their diet consists rimarily of insects, especially wood-boring beetles that flock to large dead and moribund trees.
Black-backed woodpecker populations necessarily are links to habitat changes. In times of abundant food, populations thrive. Unfortunately in times where forest areas recover, their populations decrease.
They are cavity nesters, similar to other woodpecker species. As the picture highlights, the yellow crown on the male distinguishes them from the typical red crown of more common woodpecker species. Females have a black crown.
You can’t say California woodpeckers without mention of the Nuttall’s Woodpecker because it is a California endemic species. It lives in and around the Sierra Nevada Mountain areas around the oak forests. Their taste for nuts means they can readily adapt to residential areas and visit backyard feeders.
The picture highlights the barred black and white back pattern. It’s a male with a red crown on the top of the head. In many ways it is similar to the Ladderback Woodpecker.
North America’s most diverse woodpecker genera, Picoides, records nine separate species. The smallest and most common Picoides, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) adapts equally well to most wilderness and residential areas with trees.
Physically, the Downy’s black and white feather pattern resembles the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker. In instances where size comparisons might not be available, experts suggest examining the bill size in relation to the head size. Downy Woodpeckers typically have small bills. Males, such as the one in the picture, have a red crown of feathers on the head.
Less wide ranging, the Ladder-backed woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) makes its home in a variety of Southwest habitats, from cacti to forest areas. A pattern of striped feathers on the back and spots on the breast provide initial identification marks. Males, like the one in picture two also have a red cap. Ladder-backed Woodpeckers look very similar to Nuttall’s Woodpecker, another Picoides species. However, Nuttall’s are limited to the coastal areas of California.
In that small area where the species overlap, the two species are known to inter-breed.
Everything that is written about the Downy Woodpecker can be written about the Hairy Woodpecker with few caveats. The picture highlights the most important caveat, they have a larger bill than the Downy. Otherwise, the black and white striped face, white belly and back feathers look very similar. Males also have a red crown.
They are a very common species across the United States because they are adaptable to forests and residential areas alike. Look for them at the backyard feeder.
California Woodpeckers: Sapsuckers
The Red-naped Sapsucker picks up its range where the Red-breasted Sapsucker range ends, the forest areas of the Rocky Mountain region. They are migratory and while some will take to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains during the winter months, many also Sapsuckers winter in Mexico, and central America. When they migrate to the valleys they are often seen in residential areas.
Four sapsucker species (Sphyrapicus) drill their wells in trees from coast to coast. The Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), pictured above, the West Coast variant, spend their summers in higher elevation forests near rivers and streams. Some populations migrate down to the valleys during winters.
Williamson’s Sapsuckers inhabit the mountain areas of the West, including the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada.
Of special interest is that males and females diverge in their physical appearance. Males, like the one pictured, have distinct black feathers on the head, complimented by white striped and a red throat. Females have brown feathers on the head and and black and white barred feather pattern on the body. Both sexes have yellow bellies.
Like other sapsuckers, they are not typical feeder birds, only occasional.