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White-headed Woodpecker, Glenn Bartley
Photo © Glenn Bartley

Photo: Glenn Bartley
Breeding evidence - White-headed Woodpecker
Breeding evidence

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White-headed Woodpecker
Picoides albolarvatus

Click on plot to view table of mean abundance
Elevation range:
360 - 1107 m
Conserv. status:
COSEWIC: Endangered
Global importance
of B.C. population:
Number of squares
ConfirmedProbablePossiblePoint counts
0 1 1 0
Long-term BBS trends
RegionYearsTrend (conf. interv.) Reliab.
BBS trends are not available for this species

Mean abundance by region

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

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
Ponderosa PineSpruce -- Willow -- BirchSub-Boreal Pine -- SpruceSub-Boreal Spruce

Characteristics and Range The White-headed Woodpecker is perhaps the most pursued bird by birders in the province due to its rarity and distinctive appearance. It does not occur in other Canadian provinces, except as an accidental. In British Columbia, it is at the northern extent of its range, which is restricted to the mountains of western North America south to California. It is not always observed annually in the province. Individual birds may remain year-round in southern parts of the Okanagan if adequate food resources are present.

Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat White-headed Woodpecker is known to breed only in the southern Okanagan Valley (Campbell et al. 1990). There are few breeding records in the recent past. Atlas data do not include confirmed breeding, although one square had probable breeding. Historically, individual birds have also been reported in other dry areas of both the Southern Interior and Southern Interior Mountains Ecoprovinces, most notably in the Similkameen Valley, Kettle Valley, and the Kootenays. Atlas data include two records from the Kootenays. There has been no change in breeding status, distribution or timing between The Birds of British Columbia published in 1990 and the Atlas periods.

COSEWIC (2011) estimated the White-headed Woodpecker population in British Columbia as "perhaps in the order of ten adults". The very small numbers of observations reported in the Atlas confirms that this is a very rare species in the province.

In British Columbia, the White-headed Woodpecker is dependent on dry, open forests of mature Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). Mature pines that produce large cones and seeds are an important food source. Large diameter Ponderosa Pine snags or live trees with advance stages of heart rot are also typically used for nesting. Due to the small number of known nest sites in British Columbia, specific nesting habitat requirements for the province are poorly known.

Conservation and Recommendations The greatest threat to the White-headed Woodpecker in British Columbia is the continued loss of mature Ponderosa Pine due to forest harvesting, forest fires, urbanization, firewood collection, and more recently, the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) infestation (COSEWIC 2010). As White-headed Woodpecker is a Ponderosa Pine obligate in British Columbia, some of the current predictive models for pine loss from Mountain Pine Beetle suggested that suitable habitat for the species could be significantly impacted by the infestation (Province of British Columbia 2011).

The small number of White-headed Woodpeckers that occurs in the province each year, and the seemingly erratic selection of nesting areas, makes it a difficult species to study with any structured survey or monitoring effort. The rarity and irregularity of White-headed Woodpecker in British Columbia also makes it difficult for the implementation of conservation efforts for the species. Suspected breeding birds should be monitored when the species is present to provide a greater sample size of nest sites and breeding habitat use.

Paul Chytyk and David F. Fraser

Recommended citation: Chytyk, P. and D.F. Fraser. 2015. White-headed 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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Banner photo: Glenn Bartley