The Arizona Woodpecker is aptly named, as, if you are living in North America, that’s where you are most likely to see one – if you even see one at all. Unlike their rowdier counterparts, these medium-sized woodpeckers are somewhat quiet and elusive, especially outside of the breeding season.
Arizona Woodpeckers prefer life at middle elevations in the oak and pine-oak woodland foothills of Arizona, New Mexico, and central Mexico. In the woodpecker world, they are unusual for their chocolate-brown and white plumage.
While finding one can be challenging, knowing where to look – and, more importantly, what to listen for – can lead you to these fascinating and under-observed birds. Keep reading to learn about the characteristics, habitats, and behaviors of these unique and secretive woodpeckers!
Arizona Woodpeckers are one of around 240 currently described species in the family Picidae, which includes all of the world’s woodpeckers, sapsuckers, piculets, and wrynecks in its 35 genera.
Picidae is further classified into four subfamilies: the Jynginae (wrynecks), Pucumninae (piculets), Sasiinae (African piculets), and Picinae (sapsuckers and woodpeckers).
Also known as the true woodpeckers, birds of the order’s largest subfamily, Picinae, are identified by their chisel-shaped bills, stiff tail feathers, short legs, powerful feet and claws, sticky barbed tongues, and specialized skull and neck anatomy that allow for great impact absorption – all modifications for climbing trees and extracting sap or insect larvae from within wood.
Woodpeckers also have zygodactyl feet, in which two toes point forward and two (or in some species three) point backward. This is another adaption for climbing vertical trees and clinging to branches while feeding.
Most woodpeckers feature dramatic black-and-white plumage marked by small areas of red or yellow and fly in a characteristic undulating pattern in which they dip and rise with intermittent wingbeats.
They can be found across North and South America, Eurasia, and Africa, with most species occurring in the tropical forests of the New World. The majority live in woodland habitats, though a few species can be found in desert, grassland, and tundra environments.
The subfamily Picinae includes 204 species in its 33 genera and is further divided into six tribes.
The Arizona Woodpecker is classified within the tribe Melanerpini, which contains 13 genera – though which genus the species falls under is still under some debate. Different taxonomists have placed the species in Picoides, Dryobates, and Leuconotopicus, with the latter currently being the most accepted classification.
In Ancient Greek, the genus name Leuconotopicus translates to “white-backed woodpecker” – which, oddly enough, fails to accurately describe most of its members, though all do feature some prominent white markings.
There are currently six species in the genus Leuconotopicus: the Arizona Woodpecker, Strickland’s Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and White-headed Woodpecker.
Taxonomy At a Glance
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Subfamily: Picinae
- Tribe: Melanerpini
- Genus: Leuconotopicus (some taxonomists place the species in Dryobates and Picoides)
- Species: Leuconotopicus arizonae
How to Identify the Arizona Woodpecker
With their unusual brown and white plumage, Arizona Woodpeckers are practically unmistakable, though they can be confused for their cousin, the Strickland’s Woodpecker, in Mexico.
Adult Arizona Woodpeckers are about 7 to 8 inches long head to tail. They are stocky birds with hefty bills and relatively short tails for their size. In addition, they have solid brown backs – truly unusual among woodpeckers, which are typically black and white.
Their underparts are white and marked with large brown spots and bars. Both males and females have brown stripes and markings and white patches on their faces and crowns.
Adult male Arizona Woodpeckers are slightly larger overall, have longer bills, and have a larger white patch on their necks. But by far the easiest way to identify a male is by the red spot on the back of his head.
Males are also more likely to forage on tree trunks than females as their larger bills are more effective at stripping bark.
Female Arizona Woodpeckers are slightly smaller than males and have shorter bills, though these characteristics may be hard to discern in the field. They are best identified by the lack of red on their heads and the heavier barring and spotting on their breasts.
Female Arizona Woodpeckers also tend to forage on tree limbs and branches more often than tree trunks, using their smaller bills to flake away bark rather than pierce into the wood.
Juvenile Arizona Woodpeckers are similar to adults but both sexes have a small red spot on their crowns.
There are two subspecies of the Arizona Woodpecker.
- Leuconotopicus arizonae arizonae occurs in Arizona and New Mexico as well as south to northwest Durango and northeast Sinaloa in Mexico. They are slightly larger and lighter colored overall.
- Leuconotopicus arizonae fraterculus occurs in Mexico from southwest Sinaloa and central Durango south to Michoacá. They have darker plumage and are smaller in size.
Arizona Woodpeckers are fairly unmistakable due to their brown and white coloration. But, at first glance, they may be confused for a few other woodpecker species.
Strickland’s Woodpeckers are very closely related to the Arizona Woodpecker – in fact, they used to be considered the same species.
They are nearly identical in the field where they overlap in Michoacán, Mexico, but only Strickland’s is found farther south in Veracruz. Likewise, only Arizona Woodpeckers are found north of Michoacán.
Hairy Woodpeckers are another of the Arizona Woodpecker’s cousin species. They are fairly easy to tell apart, as Hairy Woodpeckers have predominantly black backs while Arizona Woodpeckers have solid brown backs.
Hairy Woodpeckers also have pure white unmarked bellies, are slightly bigger, and typically occur at higher elevations than Arizona Woodpeckers, preferring pine forests.
Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are easily identified by their barred black and white backs. Males also have larger patches of red on their heads and are found at lower elevations than Arizona Woodpeckers.
Arizona Woodpecker Vocalizations and Sounds
Arizona Woodpeckers are quieter than other woodpecker species but both males and females can be quite vocal – especially during the breeding season from late March to May.
Both male and female Arizona Woodpeckers issue a high-pitched contact call that sounds like “keetch!” or “peek!” It is similar to the call of the Hairy Woodpecker, but is slightly higher pitched, lasts longer, and has a more hoarse, squeaky quality.
Aggravated male Arizona Woodpeckers often produce a descending, squeaky series that sounds like “keetch-reech-reech-recher.”
Both sexes issue a rapid series of “wicka-wicka-wicka” calls when disturbed as well as a wide variety of lively calls near the nest site.
Male Arizona Woodpeckers advertise their territories and warn off rivals with a rapid series of hammering drums on a resonating object like a tree trunk or gutter. Drum patterns are unique to each woodpecker species and serve a similar function to a songbird’s song.
Arizona Woodpeckers issue 3 to 4 beats per second over the course of a full minute and often repeat the entire series several times in a row. It is similar to the drum series of Hairy Woodpeckers but lasts a little longer. On occasion, females also get in on the fun.
Begging nestling Arizona Woodpeckers produce a squeaky series of high-pitched calls.
Where Does the Arizona Woodpecker Live?
Arizona Woodpeckers have a very specialized range and habitat, living only at middle elevations in oak or pine-oak woodlands in the United States’ desert southwest and in the mountains of central Mexico.
Arizona Woodpeckers live on the isolated mountaintops known as sky islands that rise out of the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona and a small part of extreme southwestern New Mexico.
In Arizona, they live primarily in the Santa Catalina and Pinaleño Mountains and, in New Mexico, they live in the Peloncillo and Animas Mountains.
In Mexico, they are found in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range from the United States borderlands south to Michoacán in central Mexico.
Arizona Woodpeckers live primarily in the dry oak woodlands of mountain foothills at middle elevations between 4,000 and 7,000 feet and are most common at 5,000 to 5,600 feet.
They may also venture slightly higher to pine-oak woodlands and occasionally forage in juniper groves, pine-oak canyons, riparian forests containing sycamore and walnut trees, and mesquite thickets.
In the United States, they are found almost exclusively in oak woodlands while in central Mexico, they prefer to live in pine forests.
Arizona Woodpecker Migration
Arizona Woodpeckers are year-round residents of their preferred oak and pine-oak forests, but will occasionally move to lower elevations in the winter.
Arizona Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Like all woodpeckers, Arizona Woodpeckers are primarily insectivores but will supplement their diets with the occasional fruit or acorn.
Arizona Woodpeckers feed mostly on the larvae of wood-boring beetles like long-horned beetles, weevils, and round-headed wood borers (also known as jewel beetles). They extract the grubs from within the wood and bark of trees using their powerful bills.
Fruit and Nuts
Arizona Woodpeckers also feed on berries, other fruits, and acorns. They have also been observed feeding on agave flowers.
Arizona Woodpecker Breeding
The Arizona Woodpecker breeding season starts in late March and extends through May. Adults begin breeding at one year of age and pairs are typically monogamous – at least within the breeding season. Together, they raise one brood per year.
Arizona Woodpeckers begin pairing up as early as midwinter and quickly begin the process of selecting an ideal nest location. Like all woodpeckers, they are cavity nesters and must choose a suitable site as soon as possible so they can begin construction.
Males advertise to females by drumming and calling. A male who has captured the attention of a female will then tap potential nest sites and perform a gliding display nearby while she inspects the location.
Arizona Woodpeckers nest in snags or sections of dead wood in live trees about 2 to 50 feet off the ground, with nest sites 15 to 20 feet up being the most common. They often prefer walnut trees, as the softer wood is easier to excavate than that of oaks. Sometimes, they will also nest in thick agave flower stalks.
Once the perfect site is chosen, excavation begins. The male does most of the work, but the female will assist on occasion.
A finished cavity is about one foot deep with an opening approximately 2 inches in diameter. They avoid placing the opening directly above a limb, as this causes nests to flood in heavy rain. Arizona Woodpeckers rarely reuse nest cavities, instead building a new one each year.
Once the nest is complete, the female Arizona Woodpecker lays a clutch of 2 to 4 smooth, glossy, oval-shaped eggs. As with all woodpeckers, the eggs are white, likely because camouflage is unnecessary in the dark cavity of the nest.
The bright hue might also help the pair locate the eggs in the dimly lit interior. Both the male and female incubate the eggs, with the larger male assuming incubation duties overnight.
The clutch hatches after 14 days, typically all around the same time so the young are all the same age. Hatchlings are altricial – that is, naked and helpless – when they first emerge. They grow quickly, fed a robust insect diet by both parents.
Sometimes, the parents divide the brood and each assumes feeding responsibilities for their half. The young leave the nest cavity at just 29 days old but stay with the parents for several more weeks, often traveling as a family unit through the summer months. By fall, the young go their separate ways.
Arizona Woodpecker Habits
Arizona Woodpeckers spend most of their time quietly searching the forest for delicious insect larvae. During the breeding season, pairs often call to one another and the distinctive drumming “songs” of males may be heard.
Arizona Woodpeckers forage at the mid-level of their preferred oak forests. They typically land near the base of a tree and work their way up and around in a spiral fashion, then fly to the next tree.
They may also be seen clinging acrobatically to small branches and limbs higher up in trees, sometimes even dangling upside down.
Males, with their larger bills, are more likely to forage on tree trunks. They drill deeper into the wood and peel off sections of bark in search of beetle larvae, sometimes striking particularly infested trees to startle the larvae into giving away their locations for more accurate foraging.
Females, meanwhile, spend more time in the branches and limbs of trees, using their slightly smaller bills to strip bark rather than penetrate deep into the wood.
Preferred food trees include oaks, willows, pines, sycamores, junipers, walnuts, and cypresses. They will also search for insects in agave stalks, and, on one notable occasion, a horse’s leg – though, luckily, the horse managed to chase the persistent woodpecker off.
In winter, Arizona Woodpeckers often join mixed flocks of birds, including titmice, chickadees, warblers, and nuthatches. If you see such a flock, take a close look just in case an Arizona Woodpecker or two is foraging in their midst.
Arizona Woodpeckers are not particularly territorial, but both males and females will defend the nest tree during the breeding season. Males drum to proclaim their territories to other males as much as to impress females.
To scare off intruders, both males and females perform a threat display by bobbing their heads, swaying from side to side, fanning their tails, and flapping their wings.
Arizona Woodpecker Predators
Adult Arizona Woodpeckers are nimble and fairly well camouflaged in the forest, but on occasion can fall prey to stealthy raptors like Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, and other opportunistic hawks.
Coyotes, bobcats, and foxes will also make a meal out of them if they can. Helpless nestlings are relatively safe in their tree cavities high off the ground, but some snakes and climbing mammals can access the nest and threaten eggs and young.
By far the biggest threat to this species is humankind, as the continued removal of woodlands and degradation of riparian areas in favor of agriculture and urban development are reducing viable habitat within its already limited range.
Arizona Woodpecker Lifespan
Very little data exists on the lifespan of Arizona Woodpeckers, but it is thought that they are similar to their cousins, the Hairy Woodpeckers. The oldest wild Hairy Woodpecker lived to be almost 16 years old.
Arizona Woodpecker Population
Arizona Woodpeckers are relatively common within their range but are elusive and seldom encountered, which makes them seem rare. As of 2019, Partners in Flight estimates that there is a global breeding population of 200,000 individuals, with less than 5,000 of these living in the United States.
Is the Arizona Woodpecker Endangered?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Arizona Woodpecker as a species of Least Concern in 2020, meaning it is not at immediate risk of extinction.
However, the agency did note that the population was steadily decreasing. Due to its restricted range and specialized habitat, the Arizona Woodpecker has been added to the Yellow Watch List.
Habitat loss due to logging poses the biggest threat to the species and is especially prevalent in Mexico, where the majority of Arizona Woodpeckers live.
Clearing large areas of forest also separates populations of the birds geographically – a phenomenon known as habitat fragmentation – which inhibits their ability to successfully find unrelated mates and breed.
Depletion of groundwater and overgrazing by cattle also negatively impact the species, as both reduce the number of mature sycamore trees available. Though they live in oak and pine forests, Arizona Woodpeckers often rely on riparian areas and sycamores for foraging and nesting.
Answer: The best way to help Arizona Woodpeckers is to preserve their habitat. These unique woodpeckers are habitat specialists, preferring to live in oak or pine-oak woodlands.
Helping to pass legislation that preserves these woodland areas – as well as protects riparian areas from depletion or destruction by cattle – is the best way to ensure a safe future for these special woodpeckers.
If you happen to live in the middle elevation foothills of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, or in the mountains of central Mexico, keep an eye out for Arizona Woodpeckers in your yard.
Leave standing dead trees to provide nesting sites and keep as much of the natural vegetation intact as possible to give them a safe home.
Answer: Not yet. Currently, the IUCN lists the Arizona Woodpecker as a species of Least Concern, meaning it is not at immediate risk of extinction.
However, its population numbers are steadily decreasing, likely due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and damage to groundwater and riparian areas within its range.
Because Arizona Woodpeckers only live in isolated middle-elevation oak and pine-oak woodlands in parts of the southwestern United States and central Mexico, it is considered more at risk of extinction than species with more generalist habitat needs and larger ranges.
Should current trends continue, the species could soon face extinction.
Answer: No, Arizona Woodpeckers do not just live in Arizona. The species’ common name is somewhat deceptive, as these birds reside in New Mexico and a large section of central Mexico in addition to the state of Arizona. However, within the United States, they are most abundant in the southeastern sky island mountains of Arizona.
- Alderfer, J., et al. (2006). Complete Birds of North America (2nd Edition). National Geographic Society.
- Baicich, P.J. & Harrison, C.J.O. (2005). Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (2nd Edition). Princeton University Press.
- Kaufman, K. (1996). Lives of North American Birds (1st Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- Sibley, D.A. (2001). The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (1st Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Arizona_Woodpecker/overview
- The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22729044/141045072
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_woodpecker
Looking for more interesting readings? Check out:
- Black and White Woodpeckers Guide
- Red-bellied Woodpecker Guide
- Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker Guide: All You Need to Know about the Migratory Woodpecker with a Sweet Tooth
- Lewis’s Woodpecker Guide (Melanerpes Lewis)
- Nuttall’s Woodpecker Guide (Dryobates nuttallii)
- Downy Woodpecker Guide (Dryobates Pubescens)