A medium-sized North American woodpecker (4) (5), the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) is named for its entirely glossy black upperparts, which camouflage it against the bark of the burned trees it typically inhabits (4).
The chin, throat and belly of the black-backed woodpecker are white, with a greyish wash on the lower parts and regular dark barring on the sides and flanks (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The head is mostly black, apart from a contrasting white band below the eye, running from the beak to the back of the neck (2) (3) (4). The black-backed woodpecker’s wings are black, with glossy blue on the coverts and narrow white bars on the flight feathers (2) (3) (4) (6). The underwings are dark greyish with white bars (3) (6), while the tail is black with white outer feathers (2) (3) (4) (6).
The male black-backed woodpecker can be distinguished from the female by a bright yellow to golden-yellow patch on the crown of the head (2) (3) (4) (6). The female’s crown is entirely black, and the female is also slightly smaller than the male (3) (4).
Juvenile black-backed woodpeckers are duller and browner than the adults, with more white on the wings, a buff wash on the underparts, and less regular and less distinct dark markings on the sides (2) (3) (4) (5). Juvenile males have some yellow on the crown, while juvenile females may sometimes have a few small yellow spots (2) (3).
The black-backed woodpecker has a fairly long, straight, chisel-tipped bill that is slate grey with a paler lower mandible. The eyes of the black-backed woodpecker are reddish-brown and the legs and feet are dark grey (2) (3) (4). This species is unusual in having only three instead of four toes on each foot, with two toes directed forward and one directed backward, giving the black-backed woodpecker its alternative names of Arctic and black-backed three-toed woodpecker (2) (3) (4).
The calls of the black-backed woodpecker include a very distinctive short, high-pitched double click, as well as a long, peculiar-sounding, grating snarl, which varies in pitch (2) (3) (4) (6). Like other woodpeckers, the black-backed woodpecker also drums on wood with its beak, producing a long, drumming roll that tends to accelerate towards the end (2) (3) (4) (5). This sound is mainly used to advertise a territory and attract a mate (4).
Although quite similar in appearance to the closely related American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), the black-backed woodpecker can be distinguished mainly by its larger size, entirely black rather than black-and-white back, and more distinct patterning. The black-backed woodpecker also has less white on its head (2) (3) (4) (5).
- Also known as
- Arctic three-toed woodpecker, Arctic woodpecker, black-backed three-toed woodpecker.
- Apternus arcticus, Picus arcticus.
- Length: 23 - 25 cm (2) (3)
- 61 - 88 g (2) (3)
Black-backed woodpecker biology
The diet of the black-backed woodpecker consists mainly of the larvae of wood-boring beetles, such as the large grubs of the white-spotted sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus) (2) (3) (4) (7). This woodpecker is quite specialised in its foraging behaviour, typically moving about to exploit outbreaks of wood-boring beetles in recently burned habitats, usually for only two to three years after fires (4) (5) (7). However, the black-backed woodpecker will also take other insects, as well as spiders, centipedes, some fruits and seeds, and occasionally parts of the inner bark of trees (2) (3) (4) (6).
The black-backed woodpecker typically forages on the trunks of dead trees, as well as on larger tree limbs and on fallen timber. It may obtain food by pecking or gleaning from tree trunks, stripping pieces of bark, probing, or by making deep excavations into wood (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The black-backed woodpecker may be better adapted than other Picoides species at extracting wood-boring beetle larvae (4).
Courtship in the black-backed woodpecker includes a fluttering aerial display (2) (3). This species typically breeds from April to June (2) (4) (6), with both the male and female helping to excavate a nest hole. The nest may be built in a dead tree, usually a conifer, in a live tree affected by heart-rot (decay caused by a fungal disease), or occasionally in a telephone pole. Wood chips are left at the bottom of the nest cavity, and the bark around the entrance is usually removed, leaving exposed wood that makes the nest of this species quite conspicuous. Nest holes from previous years are only rarely re-used (2) (3) (4) (6).
The black-backed woodpecker lays a clutch of between two and six smooth, white eggs (2) (3) (4) (6). Although both the male and female black-backed woodpecker incubate the eggs, the female may take shorter shifts and the male always incubates at night (3) (4). Only one clutch is laid per breeding season, but the pair may re-nest if the first clutch is lost (6).
Both adults care for the young, which leave the nest at around 21 to 25 days old. After the young black-backed woodpeckers have fledged, the adults may divide the brood between them, each attending to only some of the fledglings (2) (4). The lifespan of the black-backed woodpecker is unknown, but it is likely to be similar to the American three-toed woodpecker (P. dorsalis), which can live to at least six to eight years old (4).
Black-backed woodpecker range
The black-backed woodpecker is found in Canada and the northern United States, occurring from Alaska, east through Canada to Labrador and Newfoundland, and south into mountainous parts of the U.S., to California in the west and New England in the east (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The southern limits of its range also include western Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, southern Ontario and the Adirondack Mountains of New York (2) (3) (4) (5).
Although not generally migratory, the black-backed woodpecker sometimes undertakes irregular movements that may involve a few wandering individuals or sometimes larger numbers of birds. Known as ‘irruptions’, these movements may be caused by local population increases due to high food availability, or to a lack of prey in this species’ normal range (2) (3) (4) (5). Individuals may also occasionally move to areas south of the normal breeding range in winter (4) (5) (6).
Species with a similar range
Black-backed woodpecker habitat
An inhabitant of northern and montane coniferous forests, the black-backed woodpecker particularly favours burned areas or forests affected by outbreaks of insect pests, as well as areas where trees have been felled by wind (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). During ‘irruption’ events, this species can also be found in other wooded habitats, including parks and urban areas (2) (4).
The black-backed woodpecker can be found at elevations from sea level up to around 1,300 metres in eastern parts of its range, but it is restricted to mountainous regions between 1,200 and 3,100 metres in the west (2) (3).
Species found in a similar habitat
Black-backed woodpecker status
The black-backed woodpecker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Black-backed woodpecker threats
The black-backed woodpecker has a widespread distribution and a large, apparently stable population, and is therefore not currently considered at risk of extinction (8). However, the exact population size of this species can be difficult to determine as it occurs at naturally low densities and its numbers can increase significantly in an area due to temporarily favourable conditions (2) (4) (5).
Although the black-backed woodpecker is opportunistic, taking advantage of dramatic changes in forests due to fire or insect outbreaks, its highly specialised diet means it is closely tied to these unpredictable and ephemeral environments. It is therefore vulnerable to the loss of suitable habitats due to fire-suppression programmes or to the removal of dead snags, fallen logs or insect-infested trees (4) (7) (9). In particular, an increase in post-fire logging, known as ‘salvage logging’, is likely to negatively affect the black-backed woodpecker by removing the large, burned, commercially valuable trees on which wood-boring beetles and black-backed woodpeckers depend (7) (10).
Management practices which reduce the availability of mature and old-growth forests, an important alternative habitat for the black-backed woodpecker, are also likely to affect this species. The burning of younger forest stands is also less likely to produce enough of the large burned trees that the black-backed woodpecker requires for foraging and nesting (10).
In Canada, the black-backed woodpecker is protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which aims to protect migratory birds, their eggs and their nests (11). It is also listed under the legislation of various states within the U.S. (4).
The main measure recommended for the conservation of the black-backed woodpecker is the maintenance of suitable post-fire habitats, including retaining snags and fallen trees (2) (4) (6) (10). To help achieve this, salvage logging in large portions of burned forests should be delayed for several years after a fire (4) (6).
Many aspects of the life history and population dynamics of the black-backed woodpecker are still very poorly known, so further research is needed into this enigmatic and highly specialised bird before appropriate conservation measures can be devised (4) (6) (9).
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- Small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
- Short-lived organism or phenomenon.
- Flight feathers
- The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
- In birds, the lower jaw and beak, but the term is also used to denote the two parts of the beak.
- Of mountains, or growing in mountains.
- An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (February, 2012)
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 7: Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Winkler, H., Christie, D.A. and Nurney, D. (2010) Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
Dixon, R.A. and Saab, V.A. (2000) Black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Black-backed woodpecker (February, 2012)
Olson, J.A. (2002) Special animal abstract for Picoides arcticus (black-backed woodpecker). Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, Michigan. Available at:
Murphy, E.C. and Lehnhausen, W.A. (1998) Density and foraging ecology of woodpeckers following a stand-replacement fire. Journal of Wildlife Management, 62(4): 1359-1372.
BirdLife International - Black-backed woodpecker (February, 2012)
Corace III, R.G., Lapinski, N.W. and Sjogren, S.J. (2001) Conservation Assessment for Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Nappi, A. and Drapeau, P. (2009) Reproductive success of the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) in burned boreal forests: are burns source habitats? Biological Conservation, 142(7): 1381-1391.
Environment Canada - The Migratory Birds Convention Act and Regulations (February, 2012)