White-headed Woodpecker Dryobates albolarvatus

Jeffrey M. Kozma, Teresa J. Lorenz, Martin G. Raphael, Kimball L. Garrett, and Rita D. Dixon
Version: 2.0 — Published July 9, 2020


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Medium-small woodpecker (21–23 cm, 53–68 g). Unique among Dryobates in having entire body plumage and tail black, with the face, throat, crown, and large patch on the remiges white (see ); white on outer webs of primaries 1–8 forms a wing-patch visible on folded wing; additional white from inner webs of remiges shows in flight (see ). Males have a small red patch on occiput, which is absent in females. Adults have only one plumage (Definitive Basic) which remains the same throughout the year. In Juvenile Plumage, black is duller, variable vermilion patch on crown, white patches in remiges generally more broken, but unmistakable with its mostly white head. Formative, Second Basic, and sometimes Third Basic plumages can be recognized by molt patterns among primary coverts and secondaries.

Similar Species

Within its range, only the much larger, crested Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) shares solid black dorsum and underparts. Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) is sympatric with White-headed Woodpecker in portions of Oregon and California, but generally occurs in more oak (Quercus)-dominated habitats; shares large white primary patch and black back, but is easily distinguished by mostly white underparts, white rump, black patch around eyes, and very different vocalizations. See also Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Nonvocal Sounds.


See Molts for descriptions of molt and plumage terminology. The White-headed Woodpecker has 10 functional primaries (numbered distally, p1 to p10, with the outermost, p10, reduced in length), 10 secondaries (numbered proximally, s1 to s10, and including 3 tertials, s8–s10), and 12 rectrices (numbered distally, r1–r6, one each side of the tail with the outermost pair, r6, reduced in length). Geographic variation in appearance is slight and based on mensural characters only (see Systematics:Geographic Variation); descriptions below pertain to all populations. No geographic or sex-specific variation in molt strategies reported.

The following is based primarily on detailed plumage descriptions of Ridgway (3), Bent (4), Short (5), Shunk (6), and specimen examination by the authors; see Pyle and Howell (7), and Pyle (8) for age-related criteria. Appearance of sexes differs slightly in Juvenile Plumage but diagnostically in all subsequent plumages; definitive appearance typically assumed at Third Basic Plumage.

Natal Down

Hatchlings psilopaedic (naked); no natal down develops (5).

Juvenile (First Basic) Plumage

Present primarily June–September. Similar to Definitive Basic plumage, but general body plumage lax and dull dusky-black in color, noticeably duller than the jet black of subsequent plumages; juvenile rectrices narrower and even more pointed than rectrices of subsequent plumages; this is most evident in outer 2–3 pairs; outer primary (p10) larger and broader than basic counterpart (tip measuring > 8 mm from the tip of the longest primary covert vs. < 7 mm in subsequent basic plumages and about 45–50 mm from the tip of p9; vs. about 55–60 mm in basic plumages); white in outer webs of p6–p7 often broken by black marks (vs. pure white in basic primaries); feathers of underparts often with thin whitish tips, occasionally resulting in indistinct whitish barring on abdomen (7, 8).

Female. Has similar but usually more limited pale scarlet patch not extending forward of eyes; in many juvenile females, this patch absent or reduced to a few scattered scarlet feathers in rear crown (9, 8).

Male. Has patch of pale scarlet (paler and more orange than nuchal patch of adult males) on crown, varying in extent from 1-cm patch in center of rear crown to more extensive patch including most of crown, and usually extending forward of eyes.

The innermost juvenile primaries (p1 and p2, usually replaced before chick fledges from nest cavity) are reportedly abbreviated (~5–20 mm in length) in juvenile woodpeckers (10, 11), probably including White-headed Woodpecker. In Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) these feathers can vary in length relative to each other and relative to other primaries, with p2 occasionally and p1 rarely developing full length (12). It is possible that these feathers are not inherently short but are shed during the Preformative Molt before being fully grown, thus being at various lengths when replaced (P. Pyle, personal communication).

Formative Plumage

"First Basic" or "Basic I" plumage of Humphrey and Parkes (13) and some subsequent authors; see revision by Howell et al. (14). Present primarily September–August. Male and female similar to those in Definitive Basic Plumage except primary coverts uniform in wear and becoming worn and brown by winter or spring; back feathers and replaced inner upperwing coverts glossy black, contrasting with flatter brownish-black retained outer coverts; secondaries uniform in wear, with tertials becoming worn by spring, occasionally with the middle tertial, s9, replaced and contrastingly new (7, 8).

Second Basic Plumage

Present primarily September–August. Male and female similar to those in Definitive Basic Plumage except some juvenile primary coverts and secondaries retained, brown, and very abraded compared to replaced feathers. Retained primary coverts include 5–8 consecutive medial or outer feathers (among those corresponding to p3–p10), brown and very abraded, usually contrasting with 1–3 consecutive replaced distal feathers (among those corresponding to p8–p10), forming paler panel or badge on upperwing. Juvenile secondaries occur in block of 1–6 feathers among s2–s8. See Pyle and Howell (7), and Pyle (8) for details.

Third Basic Plumage

Present primarily September–August. Possibly identifiable in some White-headed Woodpeckers (see Appearance: Molts: Third Prebasic Molt); present primarily August–July. Male and female would be similar to those in Definitive Basic Plumage and indistinguishable for most or all birds, but occasional individuals may be identified by having 1–2 adjacent juvenile primary coverts retained, among those corresponding to p5–p7, along with two generations of basic coverts found proximal and distal to these feathers (cf. 15), as shown in Pyle and Howell (7: Figure 5F) and Pyle (8: Figure 122F).

Definitive Basic Plumage

Female. Similar to male, but lacks red nuchal band and is white in this area instead.

Male. Present primarily September–August. Forehead, chin, throat, auricular and malar regions, and feathering around eye white; lores and nasal tufts white, slightly tinged with buff; crown white, but with a “dirtier” look than face and throat because of underlying dark neutral gray feather bases; postocular stripe (line extending from rear of eye to nape) black. Narrow bandlike nuchal bar at rear of crown extending across back of head geranium to scarlet (#12 and #14, respectively, of Smithe [16]); this bar is 7–13 mm from top to bottom (mean 9.41 mm, n = 21 live males in Oregon; RDD). Entire upperparts, upperwing coverts, and underparts jet black, slightly glossed with bluish on upperparts and breast; upperwing primary coverts can have irregular white spots on basal half of inner web. Secondaries and primaries blackish neutral gray to dusky brown with white markings that, though complex in distribution, give general effect of large white patch on basal half of primaries. Actual pattern varies, but typically as follows: secondaries entirely dark on outer webs and with variable white markings on basal half of inner webs, with progressively less white on inner secondaries (and hidden by greater coverts); inner primaries (p1–p8) white on outer web, this white most elongate (two-thirds to three-fourths the length of the exposed primary) on p7–p3; in many individuals this white is broken into 2 segments in inner primaries (from p5 inward); p9 is dark with only small area of white near base of inner web; short p10 is entirely dark or has very small white spot at base of inner web. Underwing coverts blackish neutral gray. Greater under-primary and greater under-secondary coverts blackish neutral gray with white bases.

Spring and early-summer birds differ from fresh Basic birds through processes of wear and fading: crown and postocular region darken to dusky or dull blackish in very worn birds; rectrices can become extremely worn by late June; primary tips can become dusky-brown. Soiling of plumage, particularly white areas of face, is common from contact with tree surfaces, sap, close quarters of nest cavity; this is most evident in summer birds just prior to prebasic molts.

Aberrant Plumage

One adult male of nominate D. a. albolarvatus (Los Angeles County Museum #104934) shows single pure white feather on lower ventral tract. In Washington, 33% (n = 12) of nonbreeding females and 51% (n = 18) of nonbreeding males captured for banding had 1 to a few (in a group) white feathers on the lower ventral tract (JMK). An adult male D. a. gravirostris (United States National Museum #186159) has bright orange-yellow on right side of nuchal patch (left side is typical scarlet). No other aberrant plumages noted in several hundred specimens examined.


Molt and plumage terminology follows Humphrey and Parkes (13), as modified by Howell et al. (14, 17). White-headed Woodpecker exhibits a Complex Basic Strategy (cf. 14, 18), including incomplete to complete prebasic molts and an incomplete preformative molt, but no prealternate molts (4, 7, 8; Figure 1 ).

Prejuvenile Molt

Complete, primarily May–July, in the nest. Juvenile feathers of nestlings begin to erupt around day 10, completely feathered by day 20. Otherwise no detailed information on timing or sequence of juvenile-feather replacement.

Preformative Molt

"First Prebasic" or "Prebasic I" molt of Humphrey and Parkes (13) and some subsequent authors; see revision by Howell et al. (14). Incomplete, primarily May–October (LINK TO MOLT CHART), on or near breeding grounds. The Preformative Molt begins in the nest, before fledging, with replacement of the innermost 2 primaries (p1–p2; see Appearance: Plumage: Juvenile Plumage) and perhaps some other feathers (study needed). Following fledging, the molt includes most or all body plumage, some inner, lesser, and medium upperwing coverts, occasionally 1–2 proximal greater coverts, and all primaries and rectrices, but no primary coverts or secondaries (except perhaps occasionally 1–2 inner tertials), a replacement strategy unique to woodpeckers among preformative molts (7). Sequence of primary and rectrix replacement as described under Second Prebasic molt.

Second Prebasic Molt

Incomplete, primarily July–October, occurring on or near the breeding territory. Includes all body feathers, secondary coverts, primaries, and rectrices, 1–2 inner primary coverts, 1–5 outer primary coverts, and often 1–5 secondaries; 4–8 juvenile primary coverts are retained in the center of the tract and 1–5 juvenile secondaries are retained in a block among s1–s6, usually symmetrically in both wings (7, 8). Primaries are replaced distally (p1 to p10) and rectrices are replaced from r2 distally to r6 on each side of the tail, followed by the central rectrices (r1), a sequence that enables the central rectrices, critical for stability on vertical tree trunks, to be replaced when other rectrices are fresher and stronger. Replacement of juvenile secondaries and primary coverts occurs in fixed sequence: juvenile outer primary coverts are replaced distally from innermost covert and from variable starting points among coverts corresponding to p8–p10, and juvenile secondaries are replaced distally from s1 and proximally from the tertials. See Pyle and Howell (7) and Pyle (8) for details.

Third Prebasic Molt

Incomplete to complete, primarily July–October, occurring on or near the breeding territory. In other woodpeckers, some individuals in Third Basic Plumage continue to retain 1–2 juvenile primary coverts among the fourth to sixth coverts from the outside, corresponding to p5–p7 (15), a pattern that should be looked for in a small proportion of White-headed Woodpeckers in Third Basic plumage.

Definitive Prebasic Molt

Incomplete to complete, primarily July–October, occurring on or near the breeding territory (Figure 1 ). All tracts completely replaced except primary coverts and/or secondaries, which are incompletely replaced in most individuals. Flight-feather replacement sequence as described under Second Prebasic Molt but replacement of primary coverts and secondaries appears to continue where previous Prebasic Molt arrested, while a new sequence can commence. In these individuals, retained basic primary coverts and secondaries can occur throughout these tracts, may or may not occur in consecutive pairs or blocks as are retained juvenile feathers of Second Basic and Third Basic plumages, and are less often located symmetrically between the wings. One to 5 retained basic secondaries can occur among s1–s8 in ~60% of individuals and a variable number of primary coverts can be retained at different positions among the tract (7, 8).

Bare Parts


Blackish, paling to dark neutral gray along tomium and base of lower mandible. Bill of juvenile somewhat paler: dark neutral gray to glaucous. Bill very slightly curved along culmen; chisel-shaped at tip (5). Bill of juvenile shorter and wider than that of adult.

Iris and Facial Skin

Iris is burnt sienna to dull reddish brown; considered “deep brownish-red to dull red” by Winkler et al. (19). Iris of adult birds noticeably redder (see ) than that of hatch-year birds (JMK; see ). Iris color may be helpful for ageing in-hand birds through January of first winter (8).

Tarsi and Toes

Medium to dark neutral gray, with slight olive tinge. Claws strong and sharply curved; length of first toe about 50% that of fourth toe.


Linear Measurements

See Table 1. Geographically variable; D. a. gravirostris of southern California has bill about 11% longer and deeper than bill of nominate birds. In Washington (June–September), mean exposed culmen length differed significantly between adult males (23.4 mm ± 1.6 SD, n = 28, range 20.8–26.7) and adult females (21.1 mm ± 1.4 SD, n = 23, range 18.7–23.5) (JMK). In Washington (June–September), mean wing-chord of adult females (128.3 mm ± 2.9 SD, n = 23, range 124–135) did not differ from adult males (129.3 mm ± 2.5 SD, n = 32, range 123–135) (JMK). With all ages combined (juveniles and adults), mean wing chord of females (126.6 mm ± 3.1 SD, n = 49, range 120–135) was significantly smaller than males (128.2 ± 2.7 SD, n = 53, range 123–135). Range of wing length of 118–130 mm reported by Short (5). Mean tail and tarsus lengths do not differ significantly between sexes. Tail length highly variable because of wear.


Males slightly heavier than females. Mean mass for nominate D. a. albolarvatus in Oregon as follows: males 63.0 g ± 3.4 SD (n = 18, range 55.6–68.0); females 59.2 g ± 3.8 SD (n = 17, range 52.6–66.4) (20). On basis of slightly larger sample in Oregon, RDD found means of 62 g for males and 57 g for females in June and July. In Washington (June–September), mean mass of males (62.9 g ± 2.3 SD, n = 49, range 58.5–67.5) was significantly greater than females (59.3 g ± 2.5 SD, n = 49, range 53.5–66) (JMK). Few data available for gravirostris; birds taken in San Gabriel Mountains, California, in November–January had following mass: males—60 g, 62 g, 63 g (mean 61.7 g); females—56 g, 57 g, 60 g, 62 g (mean 58.8 g; KLG).

Recommended Citation

Kozma, J. M., T. J. Lorenz, M. G. Raphael, K. L. Garrett, and R. D. Dixon (2020). White-headed Woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.whhwoo.02