Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Downy (see “Downy Woodpecker” 10-13-2011) and hairy (see “Woodpecker Tail Feathers” 12-14-2012) woodpeckers are common in the cottonwoods surrounding our house near Lookout CA (Modoc County). As usual, when I saw a small black and white woodpecker with red on its head in the cottonwoods the other day I thought “downy” or “hairy” and did not pay much attention. However, something about the bird was different and made me look again. Sure enough, on closer observation Leonard and I realized that we had a Nuttall’s woodpecker, not a downy or hairy woodpecker, in our yard.

Nuttall’s woodpeckers (Picoides nuttallii) are endemic (restricted to a certain area) to California and Northwestern Baja. Year-round residents, Nuttall’s primarily inhabit oak forests or mixed oak-conifer woodlands, although they can be found in tall, dense chaparral. If no oaks are present, cottonwoods and willows provide habitat for Nuttalls.

Nuttall’s woodpeckers have a black and white “ladder-backed” pattern with the upper part of the back lacking the white striping. Their sides are spotted and the flanks are barred. The ventral side is white with some black spotting and barring. Males have a black forehead streaked with white and a red patch on the hind crown and nape. Female Nuttalls look similar to males but lack the red patch. Interestingly, juveniles of both sexes have red on the crown. Like many woodpeckers, Nuttalls display zygodactyly (two toes point forward and two point backward). Along with a stiff tail, this toe arrangement helps the Nuttall’s woodpecker remain vertical on the tree trunk.

Nuttall’s woodpeckers eat insects, arthropods and larvae, which they forage by gleaning off of tree trunks or by poking and probing in the bark. Males generally forage on the trunks and larger branches while females feed on smaller branches. Some fruits and berry seeds as well as sap from red-breasted sapsucker (see “Red-breasted Sapsucker” 07-22-2011) holes round out the Nuttall’s woodpecker’s diet. Although these woodpeckers are associated with oak forests, they rarely eat acorns.

Nuttall’s woodpeckers are named after Thomas Nuttall (1786 – 1859), an English botanist and zoologist who lived and worked for many years in America.

These pictures are rather dull because they were taken on  a grey, foggy morning.


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