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The uniquely patterned White-headed Woodpecker is restricted to mixed-coniferous forests dominated by pines (Pinus) in the mountains of far-western North America, from south-central British Columbia (where rare) to southern California. Early observational studies indicated that pine seeds are an important part of its diet, though research in northern locales has revealed a greater dependency on arthropods in some regions. The species is closely associated with ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) throughout its range, and Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi), sugar pine (P. lambertiana), and Coulter pine (P. coulteri) in the southern portion of its range. Its diverse foraging repertoire includes flaking and gleaning of the trunk and branch surfaces of living conifers, drilling into dead wood for wood-boring beetle larvae, as well as probing of needle clusters and drilling sap wells to feed on tree sap.
This species is a territorial, non-migratory, monogamous breeder, and there is some evidence that pair bonds persist year-round. Pairs usually excavate nest cavities in snags, stumps, logs, or dead portions of living trees; cavities are typically lower than those of sympatric woodpecker species, often within 3 meters of the ground. Modern forestry practices, including clearcutting, even-age stand management, snag removal, and fire suppression are thought to have contributed to local declines of this species, particularly north of California. However, some forest management is tolerated, and perhaps even selected for by this species. Studies in managed ponderosa pine forests have found White-headed Woodpecker breeding successfully and with individuals occupying the same territories for up to 9 consecutive years, even after recent timber harvest. Limiting factors in such areas may include the availability of well-decayed snags for nesting, although more study is needed. Recent studies have also found this species in recently burned forest.
The relationships of the White-headed Woodpecker to other “pied woodpeckers” are well studied—its closest relatives being Arizona Woodpecker (Dryobates arizonae), Strickland's Woodpecker (D. stricklandi), and Hairy Woodpecker (D. villosus). This woodpecker was originally described by John Cassin (1) from a specimen secured by John Graham Bell in the Gold Rush country of the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in El Dorado County, California. A weakly differentiated subspecies (gravirostris) from the mountains of southern California was described by Grinnell (2).