Black-backed Woodpeckers have solid black upperparts, black tails with white outer tail feathers, light breasts, and dark barring on their sides and flanks. Their heads are mostly black with prominent white moustachial stripes, and males have yellow crown-patches. Like American Three-toed Woodpeckers, they have three rather than four toes on each foot. They are slightly larger than Three-toed woodpeckers and can be distinguished from them by their solid black backs.
Black-backed woodpeckers breed in mature or old-growth conifer forests, especially forests of spruce, larch, fir, pine, and hemlock. In Washington, they can be found at moderate to high elevations, but they will come down into the Ponderosa pine zone after forest fires there. They are strongly attracted to burns and arrive within a few months of fires. They stay as long as prey is abundant, typically several years. Their range and habitat overlap with those of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, though they prefer more open forests.
Black-backed Woodpeckers are not wary of humans, but they are inconspicuous, although less so than American Three-toed Woodpeckers. They are often detected by their foraging taps, bark prying, and drumming. They tend to forage lower than American Three-toed Woodpeckers, but like American Three-toed Woodpeckers, they scale the bark from dead and dying trees, which gives evidence of their presence in an area. Where the two species occur together, Black-backed Woodpeckers are usually dominant.
Black-backed Woodpeckers feed principally on wood-boring beetle larvae. They eat some other insects and some fruit as well.
Black-backed Woodpeckers form monogamous pairs and appear to stay together for more than one season. Both members of the pair excavate a new nest cavity every year. The nest is located in a dead or dying conifer tree, on a branch, or on a utility pole, usually near the edge of a forest opening. The entrance hole is typically beveled, and bark is chipped away at the bottom of the entrance hole. The nest is lined with woodchips from the excavation but no other material. Both sexes typically incubate the 3 to 4 eggs for 12 to 14 days and brood the young for the first few days after they hatch. Both feed the young, which leave the nest after about 24 days. The young are dependent on the parents for a few weeks after they fledge. There is usually only a single brood each year.
Although resident in many areas, with no regular latitudinal migration, Black-backed Woodpeckers are irruptive and may travel long distances in search of recent burns or other sites where food is plentiful.
Fire suppression and logging practices that do not leave diseased or dying timber in the forests have negative impacts on the population of Black-backed Woodpeckers. The size of any local population fluctuates with changing feeding conditions. The species is currently a candidate for inclusion on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's endangered species list and is included on the Audubon~Washington list of species-at-risk.
When and Where to Find in Washington
Black-backed Woodpeckers are uncommon permanent residents in Washington's mountains from the Cascade crest east, although a few have been reported on the west slopes of the Cascades. Recent burns are the best places to search for this elusive bird.
Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.
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Washington Range Map
North American Range Map
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|Federal Endangered Species List||Audubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch List||State Endangered Species List||Audubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List|
View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern