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Species Spotlight: White-headed Woodpecker

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Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Among North American birds, the unique color combination of black body and white head belongs to just one species: the white-headed woodpecker (Dryobates albolarvatus).

Like most bird species that use Malheur Refuge, this distinctive woodpecker is a seasonal visitor. In some winters, these forest birds descend into Harney Basin for a few weeks to forage before returning to coniferous forests north of the Refuge to breed in spring.

White-headed woodpeckers depend on conifers for food and habitat. In eastern Oregon, they are particularly drawn to forests of ponderosa pine—the pine seeds provide year-round sustenance, and the snags are fashioned into breeding cavities.

This bird is unusual among woodpeckers in that it rarely drills down into the trunks of trees, preferring to flick away at the bark to find invertebrate prey. As a result, its tongue is shorter than those of other woodpecker species that extract prey hidden deep within tree trunks. The species was first described by the ornithologist John Cassin, who at one point placed it in the genus Xenopicus, “strange woodpecker”, perhaps alluding to its shorter tongue.

In winter, be sure to check the large trees at Refuge Headquarters—you may be fortunate enough to find a visiting white-headed woodpecker. All other times of year, a short trip to the ponderosa forests north of the Refuge will often turn them up.

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