For the Birds Radio Program: Nemesis Bird: White-headed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: July 19, 2001 Rerun Dates: June 13, 2016; Sept. 4, 2008; Jan. 29, 2007; May 30, 2003

White-headed Woodpeckers are rare and declining; very dependent on mature, healthy stands of pine. That actually explains why they have a shorter tongue than most woodpeckers.

Duration: 4′55″


One of my favorite internet listserves is the national bird chat-every day I get dozens of e-mails from birders all over the country discussing interesting issues regarding birds. And one of the things we have discussed is the concept of mythical birds–those species you see in field guides and read about in birding location guides, but after weeks, months, or years of searching for them in appropriate areas, you conclude that they don’t really exist. One of my personal mythical birds up until the first week of June this year was the White-headed Woodpecker, a species that lives in the mountains of far western America, in areas dominated by Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines. These birds, the size of Hairy Woodpeckers, have a black body with white on the primary feathers to give them a noticeable white wing patch, and a white head with a dollop of red on the crown on males. According to the bird books, White-headed Woodpeckers feed on pine seeds from large cones, and also flake off bark to glean insects on the trunks of trees and probe for insects in needle clusters–the fact that they don’t dig holes into trees explains why they have a shorter tongue than most woodpeckers. White-headed Woodpeckers often visit suet feeders, and also eat some mullein seeds and tree sap.

The books make them sound attractive and interesting, but that all seemed pretty theoretical to me. I spent a lot of time searching for them in 1979 when I went to Oregon and Washington for the first time, in 1994 and again in 1997 when I went to California, but the birds were just never anywhere where I happened to be. It was a relief to tum to Bird Chat and learn that other birders had had the exact same experience, and that others had concluded that the White-headed Woodpecker is nothing more than a cruel myth, too.

But this June I spent a week in the Sierra Nevadas at a bird recording workshop, and the very first day my heart stopped when I stumbled upon not one but a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers. During the course of the week I found that pair almost every day, and found at least a half dozen other pairs as well, just as stunningly beautiful as the books show. Although they are locally very common in California, their distribution is extremely spotty because of their rigid habitat requirements. They are designated a threatened species in British Columbia, and are declining in Washington and Oregon. No wonder I had so much trouble finding them before!

White-headed Woodpeckers are one of the least understood of all North American woodpecker species, probably because they are so difficult to find. But ornithologists find them of great interest because of their dependence on healthy, mature pine stands to obtain their most important food item, seeds from large pine cones. Because they are only found in this habitat, and decline as the quality of habitat declines, the White-headed Woodpecker is considered an indicator species. I’ve talked to a few land managers recently who say it’s not right to give more importance to birds than to plants and other animal species when managing a habitat, but I think they miss the point. I personally think birds are the most beautiful and interesting part of nature, but that is entirely my personal bias. The reason birds are so critical from an objective, ecological standpoint is that they make such useful environmental indicators. They are diurnal, relatively easy to see and hear, can be identified from a distance, and are varied enough to have precise ecological needs. You can find healthy populations of generalist species just about anywhere, but to find healthy populations of White-headed Woodpeckers, or Henslow’s Sparrows, or other species with precise food and habitat requirements, you have to have a healthy habitat. The disappearance or decline of indicator species is often a first warning that more subtle things are awry. Fortunately, in the Sierra Nevadas where I was, the pine habitat is apparently healthy and strong. And I personally can finally vouch that the White-headed Woodpecker is NOT a mythical creature.