Woodpeckers in California – Picture and ID Guide

White headed Woodpecker

Woodpeckers have excellent hearing and can hear insects and larvae moving and chewing in wood.

There are 14 species of woodpecker in California that have been spotted. Of these, 13 species are recognized on state checklists as regularly occurring, and one additional species is considered rare or accidental.

Going out birding in the woods and forest is the best way of seeing woodpeckers in California. However, some such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers can regularly be seen on backyard feeders.

This guide will help you identify the species of woodpecker in California according to avibase.

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Woodpeckers make distinctive drumming sounds, especially in the spring when they are looking for a mate. Both male and female woodpeckers make drumming sounds.

The most common woodpecker in both summer and winter in California is the Northern Flicker. The Acorn Woodpecker and several other species are more commonly spotted in summer in California.

There are some gross woodpecker facts if you want to understand more about these fascinating birds.

You can print out a free bird identification photo guide for California to help you identify all birds that visit your backyard.

Read on to find out all about the woodpeckers in California, with pictures, videos, and what sounds they make.

There are 14 species of woodpecker in California:

  1. Northern Flicker
  2. Acorn Woodpecker
  3. Downy Woodpecker
  4. Hairy Woodpecker
  5. Red-breasted Sapsucker
  6. White-headed Woodpecker
  7. Pileated Woodpecker
  8. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  9. Lewis’s Woodpecker
  10. Williamson’s Sapsucker
  11. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  12. Gila Woodpecker
  13. Black-backed Woodpecker
  14. Red-headed Woodpecker

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The 14 Types of Woodpecker in California

1. Northern Flicker

northern-flicker-male-yellow-shafted
Male Yellow-Shafted
Northern flicker female yellow shafted
Female Yellow-shafted

Northern Flickers are the most commonly spotted woodpecker in California in winter and the second most common in summer, behind the Acorn Woodpecker.

Northern Flickers are large brown woodpeckers with colorful black-spotted plumage with a white patch on its rump in flight plus a red nape of the neck in the males. 

Northern Flickers have red or yellow flashes in the wings and tail depending on where they originate. Red-shafted birds live in the west, and yellow-shafted birds live in the east.

Length: 11.0-12.2 in (28-31 cm)
Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz (110-160 g)
Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in (42-51 cm)

They can be spotted across all of the US and Canada, but those that breed in Canada migrate south for the winter.

Northern Flickers make a loud ringing call with a piercing yelp. They nest in tree cavities, and they lay 5-8 white eggs. They mainly eat ants and beetles and fruits and seeds and can often be seen on the ground digging them up with their curved bill.

Northern Flickers call and drumming:

Northern Flickers are quite large woodpeckers, and so their drumming is loud compared to smaller woodpeckers. They also make a long call that sounds like ‘flick – flick-flick’.

https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Ron Overholtz

Where to spot Northern Flickers:

Northern Flickers can be seen in open woods, forest edges, and parks, and suburbs. They are often on the ground foraging for food.

How to attract more Northern Flickers to your backyard feeders: 

Northern Flickers do not come as often to bird feeders, but they can be seen at a birdbath, so adding an attractive pedestal birdbath or a heated birdbath for the winter is your best bet.  You can try to encourage them by having black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, suet, cracked corn, peanuts, and millet on suet cages, large hoppers, or platform feeders.

You can also put up a nest box suitable for flickers to attract a breeding pair and plant berry-producing plants like grape, bayberries, hackberries, or elderberries.

2. Acorn Woodpecker

acorn woodpecker

Acorn Woodpeckers are the most commonly spotted woodpecker in summer in California, but they can be spotted here all year.

Acorn Woodpeckers have distinctive clown-like faces with red caps, white faces, a black patch around the beak, and black over the back of their heads and back. Their bellies are white with black markings. Female Acorn Woodpeckers have less red on the crowns than males.

  • Length: 7.5-9.1 in (19-23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3-3.2 oz (65-90 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.8-16.9 in (35-43 cm)

Acorn Woodpeckers are quite different than most woodpeckers in that they live in large groups and hoard acorns. They live in oak forests in western Oregon, California, and across to Texas, and down through Mexico to Central America.

They may look like clowns but it’s no laughing matter when it comes to eating, as the gruesome Acorn Woodpecker stores dead bugs in a ‘pantry’ and even eat the eggs of their own species!

Masses of holes drilled in winter in dead trees provide the perfect pantry, known as a granary tree,  for acorns and other nuts collected by the Acorn Woodpecker. They will even check stored acorns and move them to smaller holes once they dry out and shrink.

Insects are not left out when it comes to storage, but this gruesome pantry of dead bugs is often left in cracks or crevices. Fruit and sap provide other food sources, as do eggs, including eggs of their own species.

Where to Spot Acorn Woodpeckers:

Oak forests are the best place to spot them, as looking out for their guarded pantry stash and listening for their parrot-like squawks is an easy way to find these sociable birds.

How to Attract Acorn Woodpeckers to Your Backyard:

You may find Acorn Woodpeckers an unwelcome visitor as they are known to drill holes in wood siding and utility poles as this is considered deadwood! You may still get them visiting if you live near oak forests.

3. Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker for identification in Massachusetts MA
Male
Downy woodpecker female
Female

Downy Woodpeckers are common in California, and they are residents of the state all year.

The Downy Woodpecker has black and white patterning, mostly black with a white patch on their backs.  The males also have a red patch on the back of their heads.

  • Length: 5.5-6.7 in (14-17 cm)
  • Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz (21-28 g)
  • Wingspan: 9.8-11.8 in (25-30 cm)

Although visually very similar to the Hairy Woodpecker, it is a third smaller and with a smaller beak compared to other woodpeckers. It is usually a Downy Woodpecker that you see at feeders as they are more common.

Downy Woodpeckers are very common throughout the US and Canada. They are not found along the southern border with Mexico or the North of Canada.

Downy Woodpeckers can be found on backyard bird feeders. They make a high-pitched pik sound and the descending whinny call and are very active, so fun to watch.  Downy Woodpeckers nest in dead tree cavities and lay between 3-8 small (0.8 in) white eggs.

Downy woodpeckers eat mainly insects, especially larvae, nuts and they also eat berries, acorns, and grains.  They will sometimes be seen drinking from hummingbird feeders.

Downy Woodpecker sound

Downy Woodpeckers are the most common woodpecker. They make a slightly slower drumming sound, so you can hear more of the individual drums than the Hairy Woodpecker, to which they look and sound similar.

Credit: www.xeno-canto.org Aiden Place

Where to spot Downy Woodpeckers:

Downy Woodpeckers are often seen mixed in with other small birds such as nuthatches and chickadees. They can be found in open woodlands and parks, orchards, and backyards and are commonly seen at feeders.  They can also be seen amongst tall weeds.

How to attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your backyard: 

An upside-down suet feeder is excellent for smaller woodpeckers such as Downy Woodpeckers as they offer protection from the rain and help stop bully birds.  A bulk pack of suet cakes is a more economical way of buying them.

Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in great combination suet and hopper feeder, you get two feeders in one.

4. Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker
Male
Hairy woodpecker female
Female

Hairy Woodpeckers are found all year in California but they are more commonly seen during summer.

Hairy Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with a black and white pattern and a large white patch on their backs. The males have a flash of red towards the back of their heads.

Length: 7.1-10.2 in (18-26 cm)
Weight: 1.4-3.4 oz (40-95 g)
Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in (33-41 cm)

Hairy Woodpeckers are visually similar to the Downy woodpecker but larger, and they have a longer bill.  As it is often found in the same areas, it is hard to tell them apart.

They can be found across all US states and most of Canada, and into Mexico. They can be seen on backyard feeders and are powerful small birds that make a whinnying sound or explosive peak calls.

Hairy Woodpeckers’ diet is mostly insects such as beetle larvae, ants, and bark beetles, but they will also eat bees, caterpillars, spiders, moth pupae, and millipedes.

This Woodpecker nests in the cavities of dead trees or dead parts of trees and lay between 3-6 white eggs.

Hairy Woodpecker sounds

The hairy Woodpeckers drum sounds similar to the Downy Woodpecker, but it is faster, and you cannot hear the individual drums as clearly.

Credit: https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Richard Webster

Where to spot Hairy Woodpeckers:

You can find Hairy Woodpeckers in woodlands on trunks or main branches of large trees, but they are also found in a wide variety of habitats, including woodlots, parks, and cemeteries.

How to attract more Hairy Woodpeckers to your backyard

Hairy Woodpeckers benefit from squirrel-proof suet feeders with a cage to stop larger birds from taking all the turns.  Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Hairy Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in a great combination suet and hopper feeder, then you get two feeders in one.

5. Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are found in California all year, but they are only spotted in recorded checklists between 2% and 3% of the time.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with dark red heads and breasts. They have a white line down the wing when folded and a white spot in front of their eye. Males and females look the same, but juveniles are darker and without the bright red head. Red-breasted Sapsuckers are redder on the head in northern areas than those in California.

  • Length: 7.9-8.7 in (20-22 cm)
  • Weight: 1.9-2.2 oz (53.1-63.5 g)
  • Wingspan: 14.6-16.0 in (37-40.6 cm)

Red-breasted Sapsuckers can be found in Canada along the Pacific Coast in British Columbia and in the southwestern corner of Alberta.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers migrate towards the coast from inland breeding areas in British Columbia and California but they remain all year along the whole Pacific Coast from the British Columbia to Baja Califonia.

They feed on sap from trees but also insects and fruit.

Where to find Red-breasted Sapsuckers:

Red-breasted Sapsuckers can be found in conifer forests, so look out for rows of shallow holes in the bark of trees.

How to attract Red-breasted Sapsuckers to your yard:

Sapsuckers do not as often come to backyards unless you have lots of conifer trees, but they may be tempted with cut fruit.

6. White-headed Woodpecker

White headed Woodpecker

Although not commonly spotted, White-headed Woodpeckers are found in national forests in California all year, especially between May and September.

The white head and black body make the White-headed Woodpecker quite easy to identify. Males have a red patch toward the back of their head, but females are only white and black. They have a white stripe on the wings when closed.

  • Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21-23 cm)
  • Weight: 1.9-2.3 oz (55-65 g)

They live in pine forests in western mountains from California to British Columbia eating pine seeds and some insects, which they get from flaking the bark off rather than drilling holes like most woodpeckers.

Where to find White-headed Woodpeckers:

Forests with large ponderosa pine and sugar pine trees with large cones filled with pine seeds. 

How to attract White-headed Woodpeckers to your yard:

Although they eat pine seeds, they will also visit suet feeders if you live in their mountain range.

7. Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker for identification in west virginia

Pileated Woodpeckers are found in California all year, mostly during summer. They are seen in the northern part of the state, in the national forests.

The Pileated Woodpecker is the biggest Woodpecker in North America, and with its’ flaming-red triangular crest, it is very striking.

It is one of the biggest woodpeckers being nearly the size of a crow. It is mostly black with a white stripe, and when flying, the white underside of the wings can be seen. Males have an additional red stripe on the cheek.

Length: 15.8-19.3 in (40-49 cm)
Weight: 8.8-12.3 oz (250-350 g)
Wingspan: 26.0-29.5 in (66-75 cm)

They live all year in Eastern US states, across Canada, and into Northwestern US states.

Pileated Woodpeckers mostly eat carpenter ants from dead trees and fallen logs, but they also eat beetle larvae, termites, and other insects as well as fruit and nuts such as blackberries, sumac berries, dogwood, and elderberry.  They make a loud shrill, whinnying call and deep, loud drumming.

Dead trees are used for nesting sites for Pileated Woodpeckers, and they usually make a new one each year, so the old nest site is often used by other species of birds.  They usually lay 3-5 white eggs.

Pileated Woodpecker call and drumming:

Pileated Woodpeckers drum is loud and booming due to their size. They also make a ‘wuk-wuk-wuk’ call and one that sounds like laughing.

Credit: https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Peter Ward and Ken Hall

Where to spot Pileated Woodpeckers: 

They are usually found in mature forests or drowned forests with lots of dead trees, but they also visit backyard feeders, especially for suet. They make distinctive rectangular holes in trees, so look out for these.

How to attract more Pileated Woodpeckers to your backyard:

Pileated Woodpeckers come to backyard bird feeders, especially for suet. They also eat black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts, and mealworms. Also, try putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair.

Pileated woodpeckers prefer suet feeders with tail props and enjoy suet with added mealworms.

8. Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are not that common here, but they can be spotted in Southern California all year.

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are small with a black and white ladder pattern on their backs and a checkered pattern on their wings. They are whiteish-gray underneath with faint black markings. Males have a red crown, and females have a black crown.

  • Length: 6.3-7.1 in (16-18 cm)
  • Weight: 0.7-1.7 oz (21-48 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.0 in (33 cm)

Deserts and thorn forests, across dry southern states from California to Texas, up to southeastern Colorado, and down through Mexico, are the usual habitats of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Ladder-backed Woodpeckers do not migrate.

Mainly feeding on insect larvae and some adult insects such as ants and caterpillars and occasionally Ladder-backed Woodpeckers will also eat cactus fruit.

Where to spot Ladder-backed Woodpeckers:

Early morning in February and March is the best time to spot Ladder-backed Woodpeckers as they are out defending their territories in preparation for breeding. Look for them in dry areas with Joshua trees, Juniper, willow, or honey mesquite.

How to attract more Ladder-backed Woodpeckers to your yard:

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers love mealworms, and they will also visit black oil sunflower seed feeders and eat peanut butter.

9. Lewis’s Woodpecker

Credit: Mike Bird

Lewis’s Woodpeckers are not common in California, but they can be seen in the state all year, especially during winter.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers look like a completely different bird species, catching insects on the wing rather than hammering on trees. Then there is the pink belly, gray collar, and dark back with a dark red face to set it apart from its family.

  • Length: 10.2-11.0 in (26-28 cm)
  • Weight: 3.1-4.9 oz (88-138 g)
  • Wingspan: 19.3-20.5 in (49-52 cm)

Lewis Woodpeckers can be found from as far north as British Columbia and down to California and Texas. They tend to breed further north in British Columbia, east to  Wyoming, and south to Nevada before migrating south to southwestern states. Those on the Pacific Coast tend to remain all year, as do those in the southeast of their range.

As well as eating flying insects, Acorn Woodpeckers also eat nuts and fruit, and they will store them in crevices of cottonwood trees in winter.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers do not make their own nests, preferring instead to us those created by other woodpeckers, and they lay 5 – 9 eggs.

10. Williamson’s Sapsucker

Male Williamson's Sapsucker

Although not that common, Williamson’s Sapsucker can be found in the national forests in California mostly during summer.

Williamson’s Sapsucker males are more black than many woodpeckers with a glossy black back, vertical wing patches, red throat, and yellow belly.

Females have the more common black and white pattern on their back, and they have a brown head and black breast patch.

  • Length: 8.3-9.8 in (21-25 cm)
  • Weight: 1.6-1.9 oz (44-55 g)

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are migratory and spend the summer breeding in the mountainous west and the winter in southern states and Mexico.

Mainly feeding on sap from conifer trees, especially in spring, and then more insects such as ants, beetles, and flies in summer. Winter food is often fruit and seeds.

11. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

yellow bellied sapsucker
Male
yellow-bellied sapsucker femalefor identification in Michigan MN
Female

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are found mostly along the coast of California during winter but they are not very common in the state.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are relatively small and are about the size of a robin.  They are mostly black with red foreheads, and the male has a red throat.

Length: 7.1-8.7 in (18-22 cm)
Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz (43-55 g)
Wingspan: 13.4-15.8 in (34-40 cm)

They migrate from Canada and Northeastern US states after breeding in the summer and spend the winter in the Southern US and Mexico.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make holes in trees and use their brush-tipped tongues to get the sap out. They make neat rows of holes in horizontal rows, so look out for these in young paper birch, yellow birch, red or sugar maple, and hickory trees.

The holes need to be maintained to ensure a flow of sap.  They make a loud mewing call, and they nest in tree cavities and usually have 5-6 white eggs.

Where to spot Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers:

Young deciduous forests often on birch or maple trees where they make neat rows of sapwells to feed.

How to attract more Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to your backyard:

Although not usually found at bird feeders, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers sometimes will come for suet.

12. Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpeckers are not very common, but they are found in Southern California along the borderline of Arizona.

Gila Woodpeckers are barred black-and-white woodpeckers of the arid desert.  They have tan heads, and the males have a red crown patch.

  • Length: 8.7-9.4 in (22-24 cm)
  • Weight: 1.8-2.8 oz (51-79 g)
  • Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in (40-42 cm)

They are resident in the arid deserts of the southwestern U.S, Northwest Mexico, and southern Baja California. They can often be seen and heard on a cool morning in their desert environment, often on top of a saguaro cactus.

Gila Woodpeckers feed on insects, small invertebrates, and berries.  Usually foraging in cacti and dead vegetation and sometimes foraging on the ground for earthworms. They build their nests in excavated cavities in a saguaro cactus.

To attract Gila Woodpeckers try suet feeders and tube or platform feeders with corn, fruit, and nuts.

13. Black-backed Woodpecker

black-backed woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpeckers are rare, but they are found in the national forests in California.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are small, so they are hard to spot, as they are only robin-sized, with a black back helping them to blend in.  They have black and white stripes on their sides and a mostly white underbelly.  The male has a yellow cap.

  • Length: 9.1 in (23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz (61-88 g)
  • Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in (40-42 cm

Black-backed Woodpeckers do not migrate, and they predominantly live in Canada and Alaska and some down parts of the Western US as far as California. They occasionally move south looking for food especially after fires leave lots of dead trees, which are perfect for them.

It specializes in eating wood-boring beetle larvae, especially in newly burned forests.  It does this by flaking the bark off the dead trees, so burnt forests are your best bet on seeing the Black-backed Woodpecker.  They make a single sharp pik call.

They are one of the less common woodpeckers with three toes rather than most species that have four. They are similar to the American Three-toed Woodpecker but without the white patch on their backs.

Black-backed Woodpeckers make a new nest hole for every nesting attempt, which is great for other birds that rely on ready-made nest holes, and lay 3-4 white eggs.

Where to spot Black-backed Woodpeckers:  

The Black-backed Woodpecker is found in forests that have had fires in the last 8 years.

How to attract more Black-backed Woodpeckers to your backyard:

Black-backed Woodpeckers are not usually seen at backyard bird feeders as they eat mostly beetle larvae in burned forests.

14. Red-headed Woodpecker

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered an accidental species in California, but they have been spotted in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

With their bright red-heads and black and white bold markings, these woodpeckers are one of the easiest to identify. Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized with powerful spike bills. They have white undersides, black backs and large white bands on the wings, and short tails.

Length: 7.5-9.1 in (19-23 cm)
Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g)
Wingspan: 16.5 in (42 cm)

Red-headed Woodpeckers can be found in Eastern and Central US states and into southern Canada. Those in the north and east of the range may migrate further east and south depending on acorn crops.

They can fiercely defend their territories, even removing or destroying the eggs of other birds or ducks.  Red-headed Woodpeckers will catch insects in flight as well as in crevices like other woodpeckers.

Insects such as beetles, midges, honeybees, and grasshoppers, make up only about one-third of their diet. The other two-thirds are plant materials such as seeds, nuts, and berries. Red-headed Woodpeckers will also take nestlings or eggs from other birds and sometimes mice.

Red-headed Woodpeckers make a shrill call and nest in tree cavities, sometimes reusing a site, and lay 4-5 white eggs.  Unfortunately, huge declines of 70% of Red-headed Woodpeckers have occurred between 1966 to 2014 due to habitat loss.

Where to spot Red-headed Woodpeckers:

They can be found in open woodlots, farms, dead timber in swamps, or pine savannas. Sometimes they visit backyard bird feeders.

How to attract Red-headed Woodpeckers to your backyard feeder:

Red-headed Woodpeckers visit backyards for suet.

How Frequently Woodpeckers are Spotted in California in Summer and Winter

Checklists for the state are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted. These lists show which woodpeckers are most commonly recorded on checklists for California on ebird in summer and winter.

Woodpeckers in California in Summer:

Acorn Woodpecker 17.4%
Northern Flicker 11.6%
Downy Woodpecker 6.7%
Hairy Woodpecker 6.2%
White-headed Woodpecker 2.5%
Red-breasted Sapsucker 2.3%
Pileated Woodpecker 1.7%
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 0.7%
Williamson’s Sapsucker 0.6%
Lewis’s Woodpecker 0.3%
Black-backed Woodpecker 0.3%
Gila Woodpecker 0.1%
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker <0.1%
Red-headed Woodpecker <0.1%

Woodpeckers in California in Winter:

Northern Flicker 22.5%
Acorn Woodpecker 14.7%
Downy Woodpecker 5.6%
Red-breasted Sapsucker 2.9%
Hairy Woodpecker 2.9%
Lewis’s Woodpecker 0.7%
Pileated Woodpecker 0.5%
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 0.5%
White-headed Woodpecker 0.3%
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 0.3%
Williamson’s Sapsucker 0.1%
Gila Woodpecker 0.1%
Black-backed Woodpecker <0.1%
Red-headed Woodpecker <0.1%