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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Geographic Variation

Minor variation, possibly clinal, with bill size, tail length, and degree of sexual dimorphism in bill length increasing south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (5). Bills of southern California birds (gravirostris) average about 11% longer than those of birds to north, and tail about 4–5% longer, giving a tail/wing ratio about 7% greater (5; see Table 1). The larger bill of gravirostris is possibly related to use of large, spiked cones of Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri) in much of range of that subspecies (21). Plumage characters appear to be consistent throughout range.


Two subspecies recognized. The nominate albolarvatus occurs through most of the species' range, and a slightly longer-tailed and bigger-billed subspecies, gravirostris, occurs in southern California mountains (2). This subspecies designation is supported by a phylogeographic study using mtDNA from museum specimens (22). Specimens from Mt. Pinos region of south-central California are possibly intermediate in measurements (23), but considered part of nominate albolarvatus (more study needed). One late-November record (Los Angeles County Museum #104934) from Sawmill Mountain, northwestern Los Angeles County, California, is the only specimen from suitable breeding habitat between known ranges of the two subspecies; its bill measurements fit albolarvatus, but it was possibly a wandering bird rather than a resident.


Dryobates albolarvatus albolarvatus

Systematics History

D. a. albolarvatus (Cassin, 1850) [type locality = Oregon Canyon, California, USA].


South-central British Columbia south, discontinuously in mountains, to Washington, western Idaho, Oregon, California (south in Coast Ranges of northwestern California to Colusa County, and along Sierra Nevada in eastern California), and extreme western Nevada.


Slightly shorter-tailed and smaller-billed than gravirostris.


Dryobates albolarvatus gravirostris

Systematics History

D. a. gravirostris (Grinnell, 1902) [type locality = San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles County, California, USA] (2).


San Gabriel Mountains of southwestern California; southern limit of range in San Diego County.


Slightly longer-tailed and bigger-billed than albolarvatus.

Related Species

Relationships within the ‘pied woodpecker’ assemblage (sensu 24, 25), which includes the White-headed Woodpecker (albolarvatus), are well understood. Multiple independent studies are consistent in placing White-headed Woodpecker in a genus with arizonae (North American; Arizona Woodpecker), stricklandi (North American; Strickland's Woodpecker), villosus (North American; Hairy Woodpecker), borealis (North American; Red-cockaded Woodpecker), and fumigatus (South American; Smoky-brown Woodpecker) (24, 26, 27, 25, 28, 29). Fuchs and Pons (25) recommended this genus be named Leuconotopicus (30) and Leuconotopicus has been accepted in the phylogenetic literature for the White-headed Woodpecker (25, 28, 29). Other analyses have revealed that Leuconotopicus originated in the New World, with a common ancestor in the western hemisphere (31, 28), and more specifically that Leuconotopicus has origins in temperate regions of North America.

Within phylogenetic trees, the White-headed Woodpecker is most often placed closest to arizonae/stricklandi and villosus, with borealis and fumigatus more distantly related (25, 28, 29). This phylogenetic research places other small black-and-white North American woodpeckers in other genera. The three toed woodpecker assemblage (includes North American arcticus and dorsalis, Black-backed Woodpecker and American Three-toed Woodpecker, respectively) are quite distantly related and are classified as Picoides. All other small North American black-and-white woodpeckers are classified as Dryobates (pubescens, scalaris, and nutallii; Downy Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Nuttall's Woodpecker, respectively) (25, 28, 29). Some of these relationships are evident by similarity in vocalizations; for example albolarvatus, arizonae, and villosus share wad and kweek calls that are similar to the human ear; however these calls are not in the repertoire of unrelated species with similar black-and-white plumage, such as the black-backed woodpecker (genus Picoides) and downy woodpecker (genus Dryobates).

Some confusion can result when official taxonomies do not match those recommended in the phylogenetic literature. The White-headed Woodpecker is a classic case of this. Until 2018, the White-headed Woodpecker was classified by the American Ornithological Society (AOS) in the genus Picoides, which the phylogenetic literature recommends be reserved for the quite distantly related three toed woodpecker assemblage (arcticus, dorsalis, and tridactylus). In 2018, AOS placed White-headed Woodpecker in the genus Dryobates with relatively distantly related species such as pubescens. Leuconotopicus is not recognized by the AOS at this time. Regardless, in the peer-reviewed literature, multiple phylogenic studies indicate that Leuconotopicus is most closely related to the Veniliornis woodpeckers of South America. Next distantly related are a group that are labeled as the Dryobates in the peer-reviewed literature (hence which differs from the AOS classification of Dryobates). In the peer-reviewed literature, Dryobates is restricted to North American species pubescens, scalaris, and nutallii as well as some Old World species such as minor, but is nevertheless phylogenetically different than the assemblage containing White-headed Woodpecker (i.e., Leuconotopicus). It is worth noting that other authorities such as the International Ornithologist Union (IOC) recognize Leuconotopicus as the genus for the White-headed Woodpecker.

Phylogenetic analyses have also been insightful in revealing plumage convergence among several woodpecker genera inhabiting the same geographic region (27, 25). As such, plumage characteristics used to group woodpeckers into genera by Short (32) are now known to be an unreliable indicator of relatedness. For example, in North America and Eurasia, predominately black or white plumage with some speckling is common among unrelated small and medium bodied woodpeckers (27, 25); in South America green shaded plumage occurs in multiple genera (25).

Fossil History

No known fossils.

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