Male. Note: all back back and yellow crown.
  • Male. Note: all back back and yellow crown.
  • Female. Note: all black crown (lacks yellow crown of male), black forecrown, and lacks thin white supercilium of American Three-toed Woodpecker.

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Black-backed Woodpecker

Picoides arcticus
Most birds in this group are adapted for climbing and perching in trees and range widely in size. The feet of most species have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back, a special adaptation for trunk-climbing known as a zygodactyl arrangement. The order includes families as diverse as the puffbirds and the toucans, but only the woodpecker family is found in Washington:
Woodpeckers have many adaptations that allow them to perch upright against tree trunks and feed on insects under the bark or within the wood of the tree itself. Further specialization has produced many aberrant forms with different behavior and feeding habits. Most use their strong claws and stiff tail feathers to brace themselves against tree trunks as they climb. The specially adapted skulls of woodpeckers allow them to pound hard on tree trunks to excavate nesting and roosting cavities, to find food, and to communicate and attract mates. A special arrangement of bones and elastic tissues allows woodpeckers to extend their long tongues and extract insect prey from the holes they chisel with their strong, sharp beaks. The principal food of most woodpeckers is insects, especially the larvae of wood-boring beetles. A few woodpeckers feed on ants, nuts, or flying insects. Many also take a small amount of fruit. Most woodpeckers have rounded wings and an undulating flight pattern. The plumage of most is some combination of black and white, though brown is not uncommon. Many, especially males, have small patches of red or yellow on their heads. Although they may appear to damage trees, woodpeckers are generally good for tree health because they feed so heavily on wood-boring beetles. Most woodpecker species are monogamous, and many form long-term pair bonds. The nests are usually lined with nothing but the woodchips created by excavating the nest cavity, which is excavated by both members of the pair. Both sexes incubate the eggs, with males generally taking the night shift. Both sexes also feed and tend the young.
Rare resident, mostly east.
  • Species of Concern
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

Black-backed Woodpeckers have solid black upperparts, black tails with white outer tail feathers, light breasts, and dark barring on their sides and flanks. Their heads are mostly black with prominent white moustachial stripes, and males have yellow crown-patches. Like American Three-toed Woodpeckers, they have three rather than four toes on each foot. They are slightly larger than Three-toed woodpeckers and can be distinguished from them by their solid black backs.


Black-backed woodpeckers breed in mature or old-growth conifer forests, especially forests of spruce, larch, fir, pine, and hemlock. In Washington, they can be found at moderate to high elevations, but they will come down into the Ponderosa pine zone after forest fires there. They are strongly attracted to burns and arrive within a few months of fires. They stay as long as prey is abundant, typically several years. Their range and habitat overlap with those of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, though they prefer more open forests.


Black-backed Woodpeckers are not wary of humans, but they are inconspicuous, although less so than American Three-toed Woodpeckers. They are often detected by their foraging taps, bark prying, and drumming. They tend to forage lower than American Three-toed Woodpeckers, but like American Three-toed Woodpeckers, they scale the bark from dead and dying trees, which gives evidence of their presence in an area. Where the two species occur together, Black-backed Woodpeckers are usually dominant.


Black-backed Woodpeckers feed principally on wood-boring beetle larvae. They eat some other insects and some fruit as well.


Black-backed Woodpeckers form monogamous pairs and appear to stay together for more than one season. Both members of the pair excavate a new nest cavity every year. The nest is located in a dead or dying conifer tree, on a branch, or on a utility pole, usually near the edge of a forest opening. The entrance hole is typically beveled, and bark is chipped away at the bottom of the entrance hole. The nest is lined with woodchips from the excavation but no other material. Both sexes typically incubate the 3 to 4 eggs for 12 to 14 days and brood the young for the first few days after they hatch. Both feed the young, which leave the nest after about 24 days. The young are dependent on the parents for a few weeks after they fledge. There is usually only a single brood each year.

Migration Status

Although resident in many areas, with no regular latitudinal migration, Black-backed Woodpeckers are irruptive and may travel long distances in search of recent burns or other sites where food is plentiful.

Conservation Status

Fire suppression and logging practices that do not leave diseased or dying timber in the forests have negative impacts on the population of Black-backed Woodpeckers. The size of any local population fluctuates with changing feeding conditions. The species is currently a candidate for inclusion on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's endangered species list and is included on the Audubon~Washington list of species-at-risk.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Black-backed Woodpeckers are uncommon permanent residents in Washington's mountains from the Cascade crest east, although a few have been reported on the west slopes of the Cascades. Recent burns are the best places to search for this elusive bird.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget Trough
Canadian RockiesUUUUUUUUUUUU
Columbia Plateau

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
CandidateEarly Warning

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern