Woodpecker Species of California

woodpeckers-in-california

Woodpeckers are one of the most fascinating avians you can find in your backyard – and did you know that there are 15 species in California?

There’s a good chance that if you have more than one woodpecker visiting you, you may actually be playing host to a few different species!

Although the list below contains all the usual woodpeckers found in California, it’s possible to find a vagrant species of woodpecker that’s not native to this particular state. If you do see a vagrant species, it should be considered an extremely rare sighting!

The following legend can be used for each woodpecker species map to determine what time of year you can see each woodpecker in your area.

woodpecker-range-map-legend
Legend for the following woodpecker migration and range maps

The 15 Woodpeckers in California

acorn-woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Melanerpes formicivorus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 7.5 – 9.1 in (19 – 23 cm)

Overview

The super-noisy acorn woodpecker is a born drummer, often rapping its talons against tree branches! They are so-named thanks to their propensity to hoard and store acorns for their young ones. They’ll spend much of their lives hunting and protecting nuts for their brood to eat. Acorn woodpeckers have fascinating social lives, often choosing to mate with multiple of the same species during a lifetime. The acorn woodpecker is one of few Picidae notable for avoiding monogamy. They also strive to guard their nests at all costs, too.

How to Identify

Other than noise, you’ll spot an acorn woodpecker thanks to its black-and-white coloring. The males have a mess of red feathers on their crown, while females have more black coloring on the forehead.

Acorn Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

You’ll normally find that acorn woodpeckers reside towards the southwest, with birds living in forestry deep into California, Washington State, and even in Texas and Arizona. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a few out in Colorado, across the Rockies, and into Nevada.

acorn-woodpecker-range-map
black-backed-woodpecker

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Picoides arcticus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 9.1 in (23 cm)

Overview

The black-backed woodpecker is a fellow Picidae alongside the American three-toed variety, though as the name suggests, these birds can be easy enough to tell apart. These particular birds have the rather odd habit of striking trees that have died. There’s a reason for this – they forage in burnt trees to go hunting for unsuspecting insects. Black-backed woodpeckers will normally start pecking away on burnt wood a few weeks after it’s been scorched. What’s also fascinating is the fact that they will feed on this wood for up to eight years!

How to Identify

This Picidae, as its name suggests, has a shiny, black, feathery plumage, which can be excellent in helping to camouflage it in darker, burnt forests. They are becoming more and more common as they hunt for grubs and larvae, and it’s likely you’ll spot them alongside their three-toed cousins.

Black-Backed Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

There are said to be more than 1.8 million black-backed Picidae in North America right now, and you’ll spot them all across the northern states heading into Canada. Again, much like the three-toed variety, this bird commonly frequents Alaska and out east – if there are burnt trees, they’ll be close by.

black-backed-woodpeker-range-map
downy-woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 5.5 – 6.7 in (14 – 17 cm)

Overview

Truly tiny, the cute downy woodpecker is a Picidae that’s common across the north to central states. In fact, they are the smallest native woodpeckers in the country. They tend to prefer milder climates on the whole but are known to travel around. They use sharp, single calls, and tend to enjoy feeding on seeds in feeders. If you have any woodpeckers in your backyard, there is a very good chance it is a Dryobates pubescens. They are just bigger than your common garden sparrow.

How to Identify

Exceptionally small but unabashedly noisy, the downy woodpecker is largely black and white with spots, and the males tend to have red crowns. They have varying spots and stripes across their wings and feathers – meaning that neither one nor two may ever look the same!

Downy Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

The downy woodpecker lives just about everywhere across the United States, with sightings across states as diverse as Florida and Alaska! If the climate is mild enough – and not too sunny – then there’s every chance you’ll spot this bird in your yard. There are around 13 million of them across the continent.

downy-woodpecker-range-map

Gila Woodpecker

Melanerpes uropygialis

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 8.7 – 9.4 in (22 – 24 cm)

Overview

The warmth-loving Gila woodpecker is a common sight across Mexico, and you’ll often see it in the desert. In fact, these Picidae prefer nesting in cacti over any other plant, tree, or shrub! It persists in arid conditions perhaps better than most. This woodpecker is a mid-sized bird that tends to spend its afternoons perching and calling, preferring to get much of its hunting out of the way early. This species is also extremely sociable with other woodpeckers and calling birds.

How to Identify

The Gila woodpecker looks fairly similar to other eastern Picidae, however, you’ll know them for their brown or tawny body and head colors, along with patterned wings and tails.

Gila Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

The Gila woodpecker is rare in the US, however, it can travel over to drier southwestern territories such as Arizona, New Mexico, and California in search of cacti. You likely won’t find this woodpecker hanging around the dying trees that many other birds in its family are likely to frequent.

gila-woodpecker-range-map
gilded-flicker

Gilded Flicker

Colaptes chrysoides

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 11.0 in (28 cm)

Overview

This large, heat-loving Picidae is a lover of cacti – in fact, it will normally make nests in the plants without a scratch! These species are fairly rare, sadly, but they are truly gorgeous to watch – any backyard welcoming these birds is a lucky one indeed. Just smaller than the average crow, the Gilded Flicker tends to enjoy feasting on insects that burrow into the ground, with ants being prime targets. You’ll rarely see these birds in trees, however – so it’s better to look closer to the ground.

How to Identify

Often speckled to the crest and wings, the Gilded Flicker can also display a fairly golden plumage in flight. It has brown-orange colorings on its crown and down the back of its head. You may often see it boast a black crest, too.

Gilded Flicker Range & Migration Map

The Gilded Flicker, as a lover of cacti for nest-building, tends to frequent deserts and arid land out around Mexico and towards California, Arizona, and Nevada. Even then, its habits are sadly threatened – meaning unless you live close to the drier regions and plains, spotting this Picidae is pretty rare.

gilded-flicker-range-map
hairy-woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Dryobates villosus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 7.1 – 10.2 in (18 – 26 cm)

Overview

If there is a chance you’re going to spot a woodpecker in your backyard somewhere in the states, then it’s probably going to be a hairy species! The Dryobates villosus is extremely common, but it’s actually fairly shy and retiring. They have very simple calls but will be happy to drill and drum on just about anything. They are also prime opportunists – they’ll steal sap from holes drilled by other birds! The hairy woodpecker is also known for its mighty peck – it looks small, but it drills loudly!

How to Identify

The hairy woodpecker naturally has a fairly hairy appearance, though it’s also notable for its relatively long, pointed bill, as well as its distinct black and white coloring. Some species, however, can carry a brownish tint. They are generally white to the chest and are speckled to the wings.

Hairy Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

Where to start? This Picidae doesn’t tend to be fussy about climate, though you’ll normally see it amongst conifers. There are more than eight million of these birds across the continent, and their numbers are growing – there are no particular states where they are most prolific.

hairy-woodpecker-range-map
ladder-backed-woodpecker

Ladder-Backed Woodpecker

Dryobates scalaris

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 6.3 – 7.1 in (16 – 18 cm)

Overview

Small but plucky, this is a monochromatic bird that you will normally find fluttering and drilling around the southern states. This bird loves the drier, warmer climate, and tends to nestle deep into some of the less moist forests across these territories. Thankfully, they have a stable population! These woodpeckers are branch foragers, choosing to peck around keenly for insects. They normally hide themselves during foraging – meaning they are not always easy to spot. That said, they don’t tend to spend much time in the air, either.

How to Identify

Largely black and white to the backs and wings, these woodpeckers often boast red crowns sweeping back, with black markings around their faces and beaks. They will often have brown tinges on their fronts, too.

Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

The ladder-backed woodpecker tends to be a common sight across the southern and southwestern states, and they can be seen further south in Central America. This tends to be a non-migratory woodpecker – it is often happy to stay local.

ladder-backed-woodpecker-range-map
lewis's-woodpecker

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Melanerpes lewis

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 10.2 – 11.0 in (26 – 28 cm)

Overview

The Lewis’s Woodpecker is fairly rare, but also pretty hard to miss when you do spot one! This is a curious woodpecker in that it doesn’t tend to peck into wood for grubs – instead, it’s more partial to consuming the odd flying critter. Unfortunately, this is another woodpecker whose numbers are fairly rare, as its habitat is shrinking. The Lewis’s Woodpecker is a little bit of a nomad in its nature, in that it will be happy to search for food in various territories across the year. However, you’ll normally find it in burned forests and pineland.

How to Identify

Boasting gorgeous red and black features, Lewis’s woodpecker tends to be rosy around the face and beak, and to the crest and front plumage. You’ll find it has a magnificent, sweeping, black plumage to the wings and tail. You likely won’t hear it pecking or drilling.

Lewis’s Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

Lewis’s woodpecker, while uncommon, tends to be spotted to the southwest, as far out east as Oklahoma, and normally takes up refuge in forests. However, you’ll also find it in some spots of California – a rare spot that’s very rewarding.

lewis's-woodpecker-range-map
northern-flicker

Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 11.0 – 12.2 in (28 – 31 cm)

Overview

This Picidae is known by many, many different names – and you may well have seen it referred to as the Yellow or Red-shafted Flicker. It’s a fairly common bird and is also one of the largest woodpeckers living across the states. Unlike most peckers, however, they tend to feast mainly on ground insects – ants, in particular! This Flicker will choose to hop around to eat, but may even choose to site itself on branches occasionally when it fancies a fruit treat or two.

How to Identify

The Northern Flicker has plumage colors that can vary (hence its many names), but you can commonly spot these birds thanks to their flecked tails and wings. They often have black markings around their faces and crests, and you’ll be able to tell them apart from other Picidae on sheer size alone.

Northern Flicker Range & Migration Map

Northern Flickers tend to live out east but can be found high up in the northwest reaches of Alaska, and even down towards the west coast – that applies to the yellow-shafted variety, in any case! Flickers of this genus tend to be fairly common across the US, with almost ten million specimens estimated at present in North America.

northern-flicker-range-map
nuttall's-woodpecker

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Dryobates nuttallii

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 6.3 – 7.1 in (16 – 18 cm)

Overview

Small and sprightly, the Nuttall’s woodpecker is a rare west coast sight and is thought to be fairly similar to Ladder-backed woodpeckers. However, it is even less common! They feast mainly on mini beasts, including ants – a similar diet to the Northern Flicker. That said, they do tend to frequent trees more often. The Nuttall’s woodpecker carries a very distinctive call – almost like a rattle! It often moves in circular motions in search of food and tends to pitch itself around branches.

How to Identify

Small and squat, these woodpeckers boast black, brown, and white markings, often with red crowns sweeping down the backs of their heads. If you live amongst oak trees down the west coast, then you may just see a Nuttall’s bird or two.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

This Picidae is famous for almost exclusively living in the woodlands of California. In fact, it’s highly odd if you spot them anywhere else! However, they are sometimes casual visitors to neighboring states like Oregon and western Nevada. Again, despite their propensity to live in thickly wooded areas, they frequent these spots for the bugs, not the acorns!

nuttalls-woodpecker-range-map
pileated-woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Dryocopus pileatus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 15.8 – 19.3 in (40 – 49 cm)

Overview

Large and loud, this woodpecker is fairly easy to notice – particularly as their mating cries are so distinct! Rather tragically, this burly Picidae is sometimes mistaken for a woodpecker that’s thought to now be extinct – the ivory-billed woodpecker, which hasn’t been seen in the US for many years. The pileated woodpecker, almost crowlike in stature, tends to feast on ants and minibeasts found deep in decaying trees. This species’ hole-making can help give shelter to other animals – making it a welcome sight.

How to Identify

Beyond their loud cries and wood rapping, the pileated woodpecker has a shocking red crown, with monochromatic bodies and long, thin beaks. The male of the species is easy to spot as it has a facial marking rather like a mustache.

Pileated Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

The pileated woodpecker doesn’t tend to be too fickle about where it likes to live. However, you’ll mainly find it living out in eastern states, though as far north as Nova Scotia! If you’re a California native, it’s also not unheard of to spot this common Picidae.

pileated-woodpecker-range-map
red-breasted-sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus ruber

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 7.9 – 8.7 in (20 – 22 cm)

Overview

The red-breasted sapsucker is a west coast Picidae that tends to enjoy flocking to forests to suckle on sap – hence its name. Many other woodpeckers depend upon and can follow the red-breasted sapsucker in search of food, as their holes tend to be very handy to get sap from! The red-breasted sapsucker tends to be a fairly organized worker, drilling rows to suck sap from and to feed on insects. Interestingly, you’ll also find these birds flocking towards the coast, too.

How to Identify

These striking birds have gorgeous reddish heads and plumage, often with black and white feathers on their wings and tails. They are mid-sized birds and tend to flock more towards the forest reaches than to yards. In any case, you may get lucky.

Red-breasted Sapsucker Range & Migration Map

You will find this Picidae to frequent west coast territories, traditionally to the west of the Rockies. West coast gardeners in California, Oregon, and Washington close to the forest edges may spot one or two if there are conifers close by.

red-breasted-sapsucker-range-map
red-naped-sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus nuchalis

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 7.5 – 8.3 in (19 – 21 cm)

Overview

This popular sapsucker is a common bird that’s growing in numbers – and that’s likely to thrill many woodpeckers elsewhere, as this is a sapsucker likely to leave lots of open holes for tasty sap. You’ll normally spot them out in forests like other sapsuckers, but you may get one or two in your yard if you are lucky enough! This woodpecker has an extraordinarily short tongue for its species, though that helps it to get at its daily sap. These sapsuckers can live to relatively old ages, with the oldest on record being almost five years of age.

How to Identify

The red-naped sapsucker has – of course – a red nape, with white and black markings often emblazoning its face, as well as its crest, body, and wings. It can get quite large, and given that it’s fairly common, you shouldn’t have any problem finding it.

Red-naped Sapsucker Range & Migration Map

These woodpeckers tend to live in the mid-elevation forests of the intermountain West, from the Rocky Mountains westward to the eastern slopes of Washington and Oregon. Most individuals migrate short distances with females migrating further than males on average. The northern birds move south into the western and southwestern United States.

red-naped-sapsucker-range-map
white-headed-woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

Dryobates albolarvatus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 8.3 – 9.1 in (21 – 23 cm)

Overview

The white-headed woodpecker is a Rockies bird, normally preferring conifer trees and taking a rather delicate approach to seeking out prey. They will rarely peck or hammer – instead, choosing to strip tree bark in search of tasty morsels. Unfortunately, they are amongst some of the most endangered woodpeckers in North America. If you are lucky enough to spot this woodpecker, you may spot it in tree logs and stumps as well as fully-grown trees. It’s also partial to suet – if you live up in the mountains, be sure to prepare your feeder.

How to Identify

As their name suggests, the white-headed woodpecker has a startlingly white head and face, with gorgeous black feathers, wings, and tail. You’ll be able to spot a male easily, as it has a red marking, or cap, on its head.

White-headed Woodpecker Range & Migration Map

The white-headed woodpecker, as mentioned, tends to live out towards the Rocky Mountains and along the west coast. You won’t find them native anywhere else in the US, let alone the continent!

white-headed-woodpecker-range-map
williamsons-sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus thyroideus

Order: Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Size: 8.3 – 9.8 in (21 – 25 cm)

Overview

The Williamson’s sapsucker is a woodpecker that seems to be bouncing back from endangered status – thankfully! These are brilliantly bright-colored birds – at least when it comes to males! As with other sapsuckers, this bird will happily drill its way into trees and leave nice pits for birds to get sap out of. This sapsucker is also known to eat ants and bugs out of the bark it sucks from, though this will normally occur when it is breeding. It doesn’t have a favorite tree – it happily pecks away in a mix of woodland.

How to Identify

Interestingly, the males and females of this species often vary wildly – the male is extremely bright in color, in terms of a black, sweeping coat with yellows and reds to the front, while females are dimmer in shade, flecked and often brown in color.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Range & Migration Map

Despite once being endangered, this bird now thankfully frequents more of the mid-west than ever before. That said, the migratory patterns of this species are somewhat mysterious with some populations known to migrate and others to be residents.

williamson's-sapsucker-range-map

How to Attract California Woodpeckers to Your Yard

Want to see more woodpeckers in your backyard?

As you can see, there are more than a few wonderful woodpecker species to look out for across California. Some may not flock to gardens and backyards in favor of forests and woodland reaches – however, there’s a chance a rare bird or two may make its way to you.

If you’re keen to start spotting woodpeckers in your yard, why not take a look at our guide on how to attract woodpeckers? That’ll give you the basics of what’s required to attract woodpeckers.

Then, we’d recommend reading our buyer’s guide on choosing the best woodpecker feeder. Setting up a woodpecker feeder or two is the best way to guarantee that woodpeckers will visit your yard. While you’re at it, do make sure to read our full guide on what to feed woodpeckers, too – as getting their diet right will make a lot of difference!

There are a bunch of other ways to attract woodpeckers such as getting a bird bath and planting native trees that woodpeckers love.

All State Woodpeckers

Want to see what woodpecker species are found in other states? Here’s our complete list of woodpeckers found in each state:

About author
Robert has been an avid birdwatcher pretty much his entire life. Living in the suburbs he does his best to bring wild birds into his backyard. He currently has 13+ bird feeders in his yard and also raises and races homing pigeons. Robert writes part-time for Wild Yards, mostly about the subject he cares most about - birds.

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