There are over 300 species of woodpeckers in the world, about 22 of which are found in the United States. Of those 22 species I’ve found that there are at least 15 species of woodpeckers in California. This makes California have more species of woodpeckers than most other states in the country.
The 15 species of woodpeckers found in California are the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Gila Woodpecker, Williamson’s Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, and the Gilded Flicker.
In this article we’re going to talk about all 15 of these species of woodpeckers in California. For each species we’ll have a picture to help you identify it, talk a bit about its appearance, learn some fun facts, as well as tell you where and when they can be found in the state of California.
Be sure to read to the end where we’ll talk about how to attract woodpeckers to your yard.
Woodpeckers in California
1. Downy Woodpecker
Length: 5.5-6.7 in
Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz
Wingspan: 9.8-11.8 in
Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of all woodpeckers in North America and can be found mainly in Central and Northern California all year throughout the whole state. Though you’ll also find them south along the coast all the way to San Diego. They are very common at feeders and easily attracted with suet, peanuts, mixed seed, or black sunflower seed.
Whenever I put up a new feeder in my yard Downys are always among the first to visit it along with chickadees and titmice. They do not migrate and are also very common in the winter time.
Aside from being frequent visitors at bird feeders they also will hammer away at trees looking for insect larvae or feed on berries and acorns. It is not unusual to catch a Downy Woodpecker drinking nectar from a hummingbird feeder. Downy Woodpeckers prefer nesting in dead trees or dead branches on live trees.
2. Hairy Woodpecker
Length: 7.1-10.2 in
Weight: 1.4-3.4 oz
Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in
Next up is the Hairy Woodpecker, who looks strikingly similar to the Downy. They can be downright difficult to tell apart except fro the larger size of the Hairy. See the image below that shows them side by side. The Downy is on the left and the Hairy is on the right. The Downy shot is a bit closer up so the size difference is hard to gauge, but the Hairy Woodpecker is noticeably larger and has a longer beak.
The Hairy Woodpecker is also a year-round resident to California, but most common in Northern California. They are common throughout the majority of the United States. They are very commonly seen at bird feeders and eat all of the same things as their little brother the Downy. It’s quite possible you’ve seen them both and just assumed they were the same species. Here’s an article we wrote that goes into a bit more detail on the differences between a Hairy and Downy Woodpecker.
3. Acorn Woodpecker
Length: 7.5-9.1 in
Weight: 2.3-3.2 oz
Wingspan: 13.8-16.9 in
Acorn Woodpeckers are most common in Central and Northern California, but can be found in various areas of the state. Look for them in pine or oak forests, they are fairly easy to recognize by their markings as no other woodpeckers look quite like they do. Their heads are red, black, and white. Their backs and wings are black, and their underbodies are mostly light but with dark chests. Also you can see the white feathers on their outer wings. They’re quite mottled in color.
To me, what makes the acorn woodpeckers so interesting is their behavior when it comes to food. Obviously they do eat acorns, hence the name Acorn Woodpeckers, but it’s what they do with them that’s fascinating. All year long these little guys will take the acorns and store them in holes all over the place by jamming them in so that they become hard to remove for thieves.
This saves food stores for them when it’s hard to come by. On top of that they will have these caches of nuts heavily guarded by members of their groups, or families, always on the lookout for thieves. No other woodpeckers behave in this way socially.
4. Pileated Woodpecker
Length: 15.8-19.3 in
Weight: 8.8-12.3 oz
Wingspan: 26.0-29.5 in
Pileated Woodpeckers are year-round residents mainly in some areas of Northern California. They don’t go much further south than then middle of the state are are more common in the eastern half of the country. Pileated Woodpeckers are less common at suet feeders than other species like the Downy.
They are the largest species of woodpeckers in California, as well as North America. Like other woodpeckers they readily eat at suet feeders when offered, but as I mentioned they can be quite elusive and hard to attract. This bird is one that I am still trying to attract to my yard and have yet to see one at my new house.
They like dead and dying trees if you have any on your property and you can even attract a pair if you put up a nest box. They prefer large trees in mature forests for nesting and are capable of drilling massive holes in them. Their primary food is carpenter ants but also eat beetle larvae, termites, other insects, fruits and nuts.
5. Northern Flicker
Length: 11.0-12.2 in
Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz
Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in
Northern Flickers are very colorful birds found throughout California that frequent backyards. While they do occasionally visit feeders, they mostly eat ants from the ground by picking through leaves and dirt and snatching them with their long tongues. Aside from the ants they will eat other invertebrates as well as berries, sunflower seeds, and thistle.
Even though they find their food on the ground, they do drum on trees often as a form of communication. They prefer nesting in old and rotting trees like most other woodpeckers. Northern Flickers are identified by their spotted underbellies, black bibs, red on the back of their necks, and yellow on their tails. They are fairly large in size, noticeably bigger than a Hairy Woodpecker, but much smaller than a Pileated Woodpecker.
6. Red-naped Sapsucker
Length: 7.5-8.3 in
Weight: 1.1-2.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.1-16.9 in
Red-naped Sapsuckers are found during breeding season in Northern California, and will winter in areas of Southern California. They typically reside in mixed forests of pines, aspens, and willows, though outside of breeding season they’re also found in oak forests. Like other sapsuckers, Red-naped Sapsuckers rely on tree sap for their main source of food. Their small, orderly rows of sap wells is a good indication that they may be around. Their irregular and slow drumming, as well as their sharp calls are other good identifiers to look out for.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are medium sized woodpeckers with short, sharp bills. Adults are mostly black and white, with white stripes on their faces and bright red patches on their heads. Their bellies are pale with black and white mottling and a pale yellow patch. Females have a small white patch on their red throats, while males’ throats are completely red.
7. Lewis’s Woodpecker
Length: 10.2-11.0 in
Weight: 3.1-4.9 oz
Wingspan: 19.3-20.5 in
Lewis’s Woodpeckers aren’t very common throughout most of California, though you may find them at different times of the year in different areas of the state. They tend to stay in pine forests and forests that have been burned, but their populations are often unpredictable. Especially after breeding season when they travel around looking for stores of acorns and nuts. They take these foods and store them in crevices to last them throughout the winter.
Unlike a lot of other woodpeckers, Lewis’s Woodpeckers mostly feed by catching insects in midair. They have broad, rounded wings that gives their flight a graceful, crow-like quality. Their coloration is also unique and features a pink belly, red patch on the face, and a dark, iridescent green on their back and wings.
8. Gila Woodpecker
Length: 8.7-9.4 in
Weight: 1.8-2.8 oz
Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in
Only found in areas of Southern California and Baja, the Gila Woodpecker is famous for its ability to survive in treeless desert habitats in Southeastern states such as California, Arizona, and New Mexico. They excavate their nests in the saguaro cactus, one of the only living trees in the arid regions they live in. In these large cacti they get just about everything they need to survive including food and shelter.
After Gila Woodpeckers have moved on, their holes are taken over by any number of birds including American Kestrels, Elf Owls, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Purple Martins, Cactus Wrens, and Lucy’s Warblers. source
In appearance they look very similar to their cousin to the east, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, but they are quite different in many ways. though they are somewhat rare and have a limited range, they can be attracted to feeders with all the usual woodpecker food, like suet.
9. Williamson’s Sapsucker
Length: 8.3-9.8 in
Weight: 1.6-1.9 oz
Wingspan: 13-15 in
There are only a few spots in Northern, Central, and Southern California where Williamson’s Sapsuckers are found, so they aren’t as common in the state as some other species. They occupy mountainous forests of pine and aspen. Like other sapsuckers, Williamson’s Sapsuckers drill sap wells into trees in order to tap into the sap supply inside – much like tapping trees for maple syrup. They also eat insects, fruits, and plant material such as cambium. They’re mostly quiet birds, but during the spring their drumming and high-pitched, nasal calls are heard more frequently.
Williamson’s Sapsuckers have extreme differences in appearance between males and females, so much so that they were once thought to be different species. Males are mostly black with a yellow belly, white patches on the wings, and bright red throat. However, females have a pale brown head, with black and white banding on their bodies.
10. Red-breasted Sapsucker
Length: 7.9-8.7 in
Weight: 1.9-2.2 oz
Wingspan: 14.6-16.0 in
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are found year-round throughout most of California, and along the western coast of North America. They mostly reside in coniferous forests, but in the winter they extend their habitats to other trees, too. For a long time Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-naped Sapsuckers were believed to belong to the same species, so not much information has been studied about the differences in behavior.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are medium sized woodpeckers with sold red heads and red chests. The rest of their bodies are covered in black and white plumage. They forage the same way other sapsuckers do, by drilling small sap wells into trees in order to lap up the tree sap as it flows.
11. Black-backed Woodpecker
Length: 9.1 in
Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz
Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in
Black-backed Woodpeckers aren’t very common in California, they’re mostly found in Northern California in burned forests between roughly 1 to 8 years old. Black-backed Woodpeckers are usually the dominate species in places where both species of woodpeckers occur and will often drive away American Three-toed Woodpeckers from their territories.
These woodpeckers are medium-sized birds, around the same size as a Hairy Woodpecker. Their coloration is close to the American Three-toed Woodpecker’s, but with less barring on the back and wings. The solid black plumage on their backs helps them blend into charred trees in forests where wildfires had occurred. Black-backed Woodpeckers flock to these burned areas to feast on the larvae of wood-boring beetles and other insects, and will occupy these territories for years.
12. Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Length: 6.3-7.1 in
Weight: 1.1-1.6 oz
Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in
Nuttall’s Woodpeckers are found in Northern California, Southern California, as well as most of central and coastal California. California is also the only state that these small woodpeckers can be found in the country as well as the world. However, despite this fact, they are fairly common in California and are not endangered or anything like that.
In appearance they look similar to Ladder-backed Woodpeckers as well as Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. They live in California’s Oak woodlands, and that’s about the only place you’ll see them. Though you may be able to attract them to your yard by offering suet, if they are nesting nearby. They are named after Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist and ornithologist.
13. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Length: 6.3-7.1 in
Weight: 0.7-1.7 oz
Wingspan: 13.0 in
Look for Ladder-backed Woodpeckers from late January to March when they are pairing up for breeding and more active. When it comes to California, they can only be found in Southern California and Baja, but all year as they do not migrate. They aren’t commonly seen at suet feeders but they will readily eat mealworms, peanut butter, and black oil sunflower seeds when offered.
They commonly nest in dead trees, so if you want to attract a pair leave those dead trees in your yard alone. Ladder-backed Woodpeckers were once known as “Cactus Woodpeckers” because they often prefer living in deserts and thorn forests where cacti are present.
14. White-headed Woodpecker
Length: 8.3-9.1 in
Weight: 1.9-2.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.9 in
White-headed Woodpeckers are found year-round in several patches of California, mainly to the North and East, though there are a couple of small spots in Southern California where you might run across one if you’re lucky. They favor mountainous pine forests and aren’t typically found in woodlands without pines.
These woodpeckers love pine seeds and cones, so look for them in forests with lots of ponderosa, Jeffery, Coulter, and sugar pines. Like Black-backed and American three-toed Woodpeckers, White-headed Woodpeckers don’t prefer to drill into trees but rather pull and peel the bark away from trees. They’ll also flock to burned forests to take advantage of the insects there.
White-headed Woodpeckers are about the same size of an American Robin, with mostly inky black plumage all over, except for their bright white heads and white stripes on their wings. Adult Males also have a vibrant red patch on their heads similar to other species of woodpeckers. Compared to other woodpeckers, they have long wings and tails, and a short, pointed bill.
15. Gilded Flicker
Length: 8.3-9.1 in
Weight: 1.9-2.3 oz
Wingspan: 16.9 in
Like the Gila Woodpecker, the Gilded Flicker is only found in Southern California and Baja. Mainly in far Eastern parts of Southern California near the border to Nevada and Arizona. They are most common in the saguaro cactus forests of the Sonoran Desert. Because this species has such a tiny range, not as much is known about the bird as is there is with the Northern Flicker who is very common throughout much of the United States.
The two species, The Northern Flicker and the Gilded Flicker, look very similar in appearance. However the Gilded Flicker has the golden yellow tail feathers that you can see a glimpse of in the above picture. They are not listed as endangered as of yet, but their population has been steadily declining over the years.
How to attract woodpeckersFor many of us, attracting woodpeckers to our feeders or yards is something we love. They are quite as commonly seen as chickadees, titmice, or cardinals and add a bit of excitement. However they are harder to spot and also harder to attract. Here are some tips on how to attract woodpeckers to your yard.
- Offer food they like - Many types of woodpeckers are known for visiting bird feeders. Consider putting up a suet feeder as well as offering black sunflower seed. Be sure to get a suet feeder with a tail prop area that will help attract larger woodpeckers.
- Leave dead trees alone - Woodpeckers love dead and dying trees that are easy to bore holes in and have plenty of insect larvae for them to eat.
- Put up nest boxes - Many species of woodpeckers will use nest boxes. Pileated woodpeckers have a history of using nesting boxes from May to July.
- Plant native fruit bearing plants and trees - Woodpeckers may sometimes relish fruits and berries such as dogwood, serviceberry, tupelo, mountain ash, strawberry, cherry, grapes, bayberry, holly, blueberries, apples, mulberry, brambles, and elderberries.
- Don't forget the water - Woodpeckers will use bird baths like any other birds so have a water source available, preferably with a water mover or solar fountain to help attract them. Solar fountains with batteries tend to work the best so that the fountain doesn't stop every time the sun goes behind a cloud.