BioKIDS home

Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

black-backed woodpecker

Picoides arcticus

What do they look like?

Black-backed woodpeckers are medium-sized black and white woodpeckers. They have a shiny black back and black head with a white stripe. Their throat, breast, and bellies are white. Their white sides and flanks have black bars. Their tails are mostly black, and only their outer feathers are white. The wings are black too, with thin white bars on them. They are 21.5 to 24 cm long, weigh 61 to 88 g, and their wingspan is 12.3 to 13.4 cm. They are one of only two species of woodpeckers that have 3 toes instead of 4. (The other species is three-toed woodpeckers). They look a lot like three-toed woodpeckers, but three-toed woodpeckers have white bars on their back, and a white stripe behind the eye. Males also have yellow on their forehead and top of their head like male black-backed woodpeckers. (Corace III, et al., 2001; Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dunn, et al., 1999; Short, et al., 1983)

Males are larger and the feathers are different colors. Males have a bright yellow patch of feathers on their forehead that helps them attract mates. Females are slightly lighter in color and their bills are shorter. Juveniles are not as bright and shiny and don't have yellow patches either. Males are about 6 to 7% larger than females. (Corace III, et al., 2001; Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dunn, et al., 1999; Short, et al., 1983)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    61 to 88 g
    2.15 to 3.10 oz
  • Range length
    21.5 to 24 cm
    8.46 to 9.45 in
  • Range wingspan
    12.3 to 13.4 cm
    4.84 to 5.28 in

Where do they live?

Black-backed woodpeckers live in North America, from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, down through British Columbia to central California on the east coast, and west all the way to the northeast coast of the United States. They live in this area throughout the year but a few are often seen father south in Nebraska, Illinois and New Jersey. They might be found in the forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. (American Ornithologists' Union, 1983; Dunn, et al., 1999)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Black-backed woodpeckers live in northern pine and mountain forests in North America. In these habitats, they search for insect larvae in pine tree trunks. They are attracted to habitats that tend to catch on fire and actually prefer to be near or inside recently burned forests. They live around 750 m above sea level. (Bonnot, et al., 2008; Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Nappi and Drapeau, 2009; Pierson, et al., 2010; Setterington, et al., 2000)

  • Average elevation
    750 m
    2460.63 ft

How do they reproduce?

Black-backed woodpeckers form a breeding pair of one male and one female that stay together year-round. After forming a pair, they don't really interact with other black-backed woodpeckers. They usually have one set of eggs each season, but will nest a second time if something happens to the first. Males raise the yellow feathers on the top of their head to attract a female. (Corace III, et al., 2001; Godfrey, 1986; Pierson, et al., 2010)

Black-backed woodpeckers breed in northern pine forests and mountain pine forests in North America. They make nests in small holes in trees about 2.23 m above the ground that are 30 cm deep. They get the nest ready in April and May. Females lay 2 to 6 eggs and mostly are responsible for keeping them warm for 12 to 14 days. When they are born, young are not able to take care of themselves. They can't fly until they are 25 days old. (Bonnot, et al., 2008; Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dudley and Saab, 2007; Godfrey, 1986; Nappi and Drapeau, 2009)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Black-backed woodpeckers breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Black-backed woodpeckers breed from June to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 6
  • Average time to hatching
    11 days
  • Average fledging age
    25 days

Both parents are actively involved in caring for the young. They work together to dig out the nest, which is made of decayed wood chips at bottom of a hole in the tree, called a cavity. They build a new nest every year and the male does most of the work. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dudley and Saab, 2007; Godfrey, 1986)

Both parents keep the eggs warm for 11 days until they hatch, though females are mostly responsible. After the chicks hatch, parents take turns protecting the young for 24 days. They both bring back food, like different kinds of insects and insect larvae. The parents protect the young and keep the nest clean. After the young can fly, they stay with their parents to learn how to search for food. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dudley and Saab, 2007; Godfrey, 1986)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The lifespan of black-backed woodpeckers is not determined, but three-toed woodpeckers which are closely related live at least 6 to 8 years. (Godfrey, 1986; Pierson, et al., 2010)

How do they behave?

Black-backed woodpeckers are nomadic, meaning that they move around with in the same general area. They will move into forests that have recently burned. They don't act with other species very often, except when defending their breeding territory. Predators and competing birds that nest in tree holes are often interested in their nests, so black-backed woodpeckers defend their territory. They do this by raising the tops of their heads to intimidate, hunching their head and swinging, and spreading their wings and tails. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009; Dixon and Saab, 2010; Pierson, et al., 2010)

  • Average territory size
    2 km^2

Home Range

Black-backed woodpeckers usually stay in an area that is 2 square km in size and located around their nesting sites. If a fire does not replenish food resources, they increase the area of their territory so they have more space to find food. (Dudley and Saab, 2007; Pierson, et al., 2010; Tremblay, et al., 2009)

How do they communicate with each other?

Black-backed woodpeckers make quite a bit of noise. They have a fast, sharp call that sounds like "kyik." It is made between males and females and used for defending territory or feeding young. They make one other call to other black-backed woodpeckers or other species. It is a unique scream-rattle-snarl call that sounds like "wet-et-ddd-eee-yaaa." They also drum either quickly or slowly in long, even rolls. This call is combined with with a head-hunched swinging display. Young black-backed woodpeckers make a call that sounds like gurgling to tell their parents they need food. Parents make the same call to communicate to the young that they are about to feed them. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dunn, et al., 1999; Godfrey, 1986; Short, et al., 1983)

An example of visual communication is when the male raises the feathers on the top of his head. He sticks out his bright yellow crest to attract female mates or threaten intruders who come too close to the nest. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dunn, et al., 1999; Godfrey, 1986; Short, et al., 1983)

What do they eat?

Black-backed woodpeckers are insectivores, so they mainly eat insects. They rely on the insects from pine forests that were just burned. They will reproduce in high numbers when they come upon a newly burned forest, and then have trouble finding food because there are so many of them. Black-backed woodpeckers find food by peeling off tree bark and getting insects and larvae underneath. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dudley and Saab, 2007; Dunn, et al., 1999; Godfrey, 1986; Murphy and Lehnhausen, 1998; Nappi and Drapeau, 2009; Spring, 1965; Villard, 1994)

They eat many kinds of insect larvae, such as white-spotted sawyers, jewel or metallic wood-boring beetles, longhorned beetles, bark-boring beetles, and mountain pine beetles. Black-backed woodpeckers eat some kinds of plant material, too. They eat bark, seeds, and some fruit if they can't find insect larvae. This might happen after they have been feeding in an area for 2 to 3 years after it has been burned. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Dudley and Saab, 2007; Dunn, et al., 1999; Godfrey, 1986; Murphy and Lehnhausen, 1998; Nappi and Drapeau, 2009; Spring, 1965; Villard, 1994)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Black-backed woodpeckers don't have very many predators because the burned forests they call home don't support very many species. Still, they are eaten by black bears, which gnaw at the nest entrance until the birds come out and get eaten. Other predators are birds of prey like Cooper's hawks. Their eggs and chicks are eaten by flying squirrels and Douglas squirrels. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Godfrey, 1986; Walters and Miller, 2001)

Black-backed woodpeckers have some adaptations to better their chance of survival. The patch of yellow on the forehead of males intimidates and wards off intruders. Their black feathers also blend in with the burned trees they live around. (Dixon and Saab, 2010; Godfrey, 1986; Walters and Miller, 2001)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Black-backed woodpeckers prefer recently burned forests. These forests are not good habitat for many other species, so they find a lot of wood-boring beetles to eat. Black-backed woodpeckers reduce the number of wood-boring beetles which eat the trees. They also create nesting spots for other species by digging out holes in trees to nest in. (Godfrey, 1986; Short, 1979)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

Do they cause problems?

There are no known negative impacts of black-backed woodpeckers on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Black-backed woodpeckers are rare and secretive, so many bird-watchers enjoy spotting them.

Are they endangered?

Black-backed woodpeckers have a large range and probably a large population. They are considered "least concern" on the IUCN Red List and the U. S. federal list. However, in the state of Michigan, they are listed as a species of "special concern," which means that scientists keep track of their numbers but they aren't legally protected. They have a small population in Michigan. Their biggest threat is habitat loss, which is a concern because humans put a lot of effort into preventing forest fires, which they need for their habitat. (Corace III, et al., 2001; Government of Canada, 2010)


Lucas Hudec (author), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, Doris Audet (editor), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


American Ornithologists' Union, 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. Kansas: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Bonnot, T., M. Rumble, J. Millspaugh. 2008. Nest Success of Black-backed Woodpeckers in Forests with Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreaks in the Black Hills, South Dakota. CONDOR, 110(3): 450-457.

Corace III, R., N. Lapinski, S. Sjogren. 2001. Conservation Assesment for Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides articus). USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region: 1-21. Accessed October 11, 2010 at

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009. "Black-backed Woodpecker" (On-line). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds. Accessed September 20, 2010 at

Dixon, R., V. Saab. 2010. "Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)" (On-line). The Birds of North America Online. Accessed October 05, 2010 at

Dudley, J., V. Saab. 2007. Home-range Size of Black-Backed Woodpeckers in Burned Forests of Southwestern Idaho. Western North American Naturalist, 67(4): 593-600.

Dunn, J., J. Alderfer, P. Lehman. 1999. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Godfrey, W. 1986. The Birds of Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: National Museums of Canada.

Government of Canada, 2010. "COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada)" (On-line). Accessed November 11, 2010 at

Murphy, E., W. Lehnhausen. 1998. Density and Foraging Ecology of Woodpeckers Following a Stand-Replacement Fire. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 62(4): 1359-1372.

Nappi, A., P. Drapeau. 2009. Reproductive success of the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) in burned boreal forests: Are burns source habitats?. Biological Conservation, 142: 1381-1391.

Pierson, J., F. Allendorf, V. Saab, P. Drapeau, M. Schwartz. 2010. Do male and female black-backed woodpeckers respond differently to gaps in habitat?. EVOLUTIONARY APPLICATIONS, 3(3): 263-278.

Setterington, M., I. Thompson, W. Montevecchi. 2000. Woodpecker abundance and habitat use in mature balsam fir forests in Newfoundland. JOURNAL OF WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT, 64(2): 335-345.

Short, L. 1979. Burdens of the picid hole-excavating habitat. The Wilson Bulletin, 91(1): 16-28.

Short, L., D. Finch, P. Lehman, J. Remsen Jr.. 1983. The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding: Gulls to Dippers. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..

Spring, L. 1965. Climbing and Pecking Adaptations in Some North American Woodpeckers. The Condor, 67(6): 457-488.

Tremblay, J., J. Ibarzabal, C. Dussault, J. Savard. 2009. Habitat requirements of breeding Black-backed Woodpeckers (Picoides articus) in managed, unburned boreal forest.. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 4(1): 51-66.

Villard, P. 1994. Foraging Behaviour of Black-backed and 3-Toed Woodpeckers during spring and summer in Canadian Boreal Forest. CANADIAN JOURNAL OF ZOOLOGY, 72(11): 1957-1959.

Walters, E., E. Miller. 2001. Predation on Nesting Woodpeckers in British Columbia. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 115(3): 413-419.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

BioKIDS home  |  Questions?  |  Animal Diversity Web  |  Cybertracker Tools

Hudec, L. 2012. "Picoides arcticus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 24, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
Copyright © 2002-2024, The Regents of the University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

University of Michigan