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

Conservation and Management

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Conservation Status

Although ranked as Least Concern (not globally threatened) by BirdLife International, the White-headed Woodpecker is listed as Imperiled in Idaho (Idaho Department of Fish and Game) and as a State Candidate for Listing in Washington (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife). Considered a Sensitive Species in Oregon since 1989 (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife). Also considered a Sensitive Species in the Pacific Northwest, Intermountain, and Northern regions of U.S. Forest Service (135). In 2003, listed as Endangered in Canada under the Species at Risk Act (136). No official listings within range of gravirostris or within the California range of nominate albolarvatus.

Effects of Human Activity

Habitat Loss and Degradation

Early research suggested that this species was associated with old-growth pine forests (72, 87). This led to the supposition that logging of old-growth forest was contributing to population declines and range retractions in some regions (79). However, a growing body of research has found this species in recently logged forests and forests managed for intensive timber production (67, 76, 73). Moreover, populations are difficult to monitor and thus it is unclear whether extensive population declines have occurred; many reports of population declines are based on anecdotal observations. Recent research has found this species persisting in burned or cutover forest with residual snags and stumps (67, 91, 116). Studies have also found this species responds positively to thinning of overstocked ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests (77, 137, 138). It also regularly occurs and breeds in areas with frequent timber harvest (67, 76, 49), as well as in recently (0–10 year) burned forest, including high severity burns (71, 70, 67, 69, 68). However, White-headed Woodpecker populations do not increase in burns in response to an increase in insect prey as other woodpecker species (e.g., Hairy Woodpecker and Black-backed Woodpecker) are known to do. Instead, White-headed Woodpeckers take advantage of burned areas within their existing home ranges by utilizing fire-killed trees primarily for cavity excavation, and to a lesser degree for foraging. Because the White-headed Woodpecker evolved in forests with frequent, low intensity fires resulting in low densities of large-diameter trees, it benefits from thinning operations in pine forests that are overstocked, as long as snags for nesting are provided and protected. Collectively, this research suggests this species is likely negatively impacted by forest management that includes: (1) planting of even-aged stands, with no provisions for standing dead wood; (2) fire suppression, which favors replacement of pines by firs and does not provide high snag densities for nesting; and (3) snag removal.

Effects of Invasive Species

No information.

Shooting and Trapping

Direct persecution by humans is likely an insignificant source of mortality.

Pesticides and Other Contaminants/Toxics

No indication of any important effects of pesticides or other contaminants/toxins.

Collisions with Stationary/Moving Structure or Objects

Collisions appear rare, but have been documented with vehicles.

Human/Research Impacts

Incidental disturbance at nest sites undoubtedly occurs around recreation sites; high-density human recreation occurs in many national forests and other public lands occupied by the White-headed Woodpecker (e.g., Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles County, California, which provides habitat for about 25–30% of the population of gravirostris, has perhaps highest human visitorship of any national forest in United States). Active nest snags are susceptible to being cut down for firewood (139). Tolerant of human activity in nest vicinity as long as activity does not involve nest tree; birds become extremely agitated if nest itself is disturbed (RDD). Also tolerant of humans near roost as long as human activity is not prolonged (RDD).

Indirect effects of researcher impacts are difficult to measure. Three instances of direct effects have been documented. In the first case, a Teflon ribbon harness used to secure a radio-transmitter affected normal flight of a breeding male; this individual was recaptured within 2 days and the transmitter was removed, with no apparent impact on the bird or his nest (JMK, TJL). In a second case, a color-banded male woodpecker was recaptured 5 years after initial banding and one color band had slid over the halux pinning the toe between the band and the tarsometatarsus (JMK); the offending band was replaced with a new band. Before capture, the bird was observed excavating at a cavity and also foraging and feeding fledglings, with no apparent ill effects. A third case involved checking the contents of a nest cavity with a Tree Top Peeper nest inspection device (JMK). The Tree Top Peeper probe was inserted into the cavity opening to find a female woodpecker incubating eggs. The female got off the eggs and proceeded to inspect the cavity probe. The observer turned off the video feed and then tried to remove the probe but it appeared to get caught at the cavity entrance. Unbeknownst to the observer, the female had tried to exit the cavity at the same time the probe was being removed. The observer pushed the probe back into the cavity and turned on the video feed to find the female woodpecker dead at the bottom of the cavity and surmised that her head became trapped between the probe and the cavity entrance. Otherwise, to date hundreds of White-headed Woodpeckers have been banded and radio tagged, and hundreds of nests have been inspected in various studies in Oregon (87, 72, 120), Idaho (125), and Washington (49, 91, 67) without apparent negative impacts. These studies have used radio tags (≤ 3% of body weight) attached with tail mounts or leg-loop harnesses on nestlings and adults, as well as bands and color-bands. Woodpeckers have been observed breeding successfully for up to 2 years wearing transmitters affixed with leg-loop harnesses (TJL). Woodpeckers have been banded with up to 4 bands (2 per leg) and observed breeding successfully and surviving for over 9 years (JMK). The hole-saw method (140) has been used to band and tag > 150 nestling White-headed Woodpeckers in Washington without obvious negative impacts. Adult woodpeckers have been successfully captured using mist-nets, noose/foot traps, and hoop nets with no apparent harm. However, both parents at a nest in Washington were captured on the same afternoon using a set of mist-nets in front of the nest cavity entrance, which resulted in the adults not resuming normal feeding of the nestlings by morning of the next day (TJL, JMK). While this nest successfully fledged young, the adults may have been wary of approaching their nest after being captured. However, since that event, 7 additional nests have had both adults banded/recaptured at the nest during the same trapping session with no disturbance to nestling feeding patterns the following day.


Measures Proposed and Taken

Proposed conservation strategy for Idaho (141) involved management of White-headed Woodpecker habitat (primarily ponderosa pine forest) through modifications in existing timber-harvesting and fire suppression regimes, along with programs of snag retention and monitoring of woodpecker abundance and habitat response. Specific snag retention recommendations included 45 suitable large (> 58 cm dbh) snags per 40 ha to maintain target population of 5 pairs of White-headed Woodpeckers per 40 ha.

Effectiveness of Measures

No White-headed Woodpecker conservation plans have been in effect long enough to allow assessment of success.

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