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Black-backed Woodpecker, Alan Burger
Photo © Alan Burger

Photo: Alan Burger
Breeding evidence - Black-backed Woodpecker
Breeding evidence
Probability of observation - Black-backed Woodpecker
Probability of observation
Elevation plot - Black-backed Woodpecker
Elevation plot

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Black-backed Woodpecker
Picoides arcticus
Landscape associations:

Click on plot to view table of mean abundance
Elevation range:
259 - 1932 m
Conserv. status:
Not at risk
Global importance
of B.C. population:
Number of squares
ConfirmedProbablePossiblePoint counts
28 30 151 78
Long-term BBS trends
RegionYearsTrend (conf. interv.) Reliab.
Canada1970 - 2012 -1.41 (-3.87 - 1.12)Medium

Mean abundance by region

Bird Conservation Regions [plot]
NW Interior ForestBoreal Taiga PlainsGreat BasinNorthern RockiesN. Pacific Rainforest
0.090.02 0.090.07 0.1
Ecoprovinces [plot]
N. Boreal Mountains Taiga Plains Boreal Plains Georgia Depression Sub-Boreal Interior
0.090.02    0.07
S. Interior Mountains Central Interior Southern Interior S. Alaska Mountains Coast & Mountains
0.090.08 0.09  0.1

Mean abundance by habitat [plot]

Boreal Altai Fescue AlpineBoreal White and Black SpruceBunchgrassCoastal Douglas-fir
Coastal Mountain-heather AlpineCoastal Western HemlockEngelmann Spruce -- Subalpine FirInterior Cedar -- Hemlock
Interior Douglas-firInterior Mountain-heather AlpineMontane SpruceMountain Hemlock
0.05 0.08 
Ponderosa PineSpruce -- Willow -- BirchSub-Boreal Pine -- SpruceSub-Boreal Spruce

Characteristics and Range The Black-backed and the American Three-toed Woodpeckers are the only 2 species of woodpecker in North America that have 3 toes on each foot. The Black-backed breeds almost as far north as its counterpart and occupies a similar distribution across the Boreal Forest from Alaska to the Atlantic Coast, through the Cascade and northern Rocky mountains, south to the Sierra Nevada. The species is largely resident within this range but irruptions and winter movements may bring birds south to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachian Mountains (Dixon and Saab 2000).

Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat Black-backed Woodpeckers are relatively widespread in all of the interior ecoprovinces, but very sparsely distributed in the northerly portions of the Coast Mountains. The Atlas results approximate to the distribution known when The Birds of British Columbia was published in 1990, except that the range during the Atlas period extends farther west and more extensively north across the interior plateaus.

The probability of observing a Black-backed Woodpecker is low everywhere, and only slightly higher in the Omineca Mountains and northern Rocky Mountain Trench area in the Sub-boreal Interior and Northern Boreal Mountains ecoprovinces. Too few observations were made on Atlas point counts to draw firm conclusions, but abundance appears to be highest in the 750-1,000 m elevation band, which is where 48% of all observations with elevation data were made.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are largely associated with boreal and upper elevation coniferous forests supporting Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruce (Picea) species, Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa), reflected in the slightly higher PObs values in spruce-dominated biogeoclimatic zones. Recent burns invaded by wood-boring beetles are considered to be essential habitats. Birds are also found around openings such as the margins of ponds, bogs and swamps. Campbell et al. (1990) reported that all nests were found in living or dead conifers including Douglas-fir, spruces, Western Hemlock, Western Larch (Larix occidentalis), Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) and pines (Pinus species).

Conservation and Recommendations Canada's responsibility for global conservation stewardship is ranked very high (Environment Canada 2011), but British Columbia's responsibility is rated only medium by the British Columbia Conservation Data Centre. The species may be declining, although trend data are difficult to interpret due to the low sample sizes. Fire suppression and post-fire salvage logging have negative implications for the species (Dixon and Saab 2000). Reserving a percentage of fire-killed stands from salvage logging may be a way of retaining some essential habitat.

Rick Howie

Recommended citation: Howie, R. 2015. Black-backed Woodpecker in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. [29 Feb 2024]

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