What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in California?
No matter where you live in California, you can see a variety of woodpeckers. Most people are surprised at the large number of species that can be found near them.
Below you will learn more about each and how to identify them by sight OR sound. Pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
Here are 12 types of woodpeckers that live in California!
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#1. Downy Woodpecker
- Dryobates pubescens
- Relatively small and has a small bill compared to other woodpecker species.
- Color-wise, they have white bellies with a mostly black back that features streaks and spots of white.
- Male birds have a distinctive red spot on the back of their head, which females lack.
Downy Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in California!
You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards and are found in many different habitats. Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods with a nearby water source. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
Downy Woodpecker Range Map
Luckily, this woodpecker species is easy to draw to your backyard. The best foods to use are suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (including peanut butter). You may even spot them drinking sugar water from your hummingbird feeders!
- RELATED: 6 Proven Ways to Attract Woodpeckers
Once you know what to listen for, my guess is that you will start hearing Downy Woodpeckers everywhere you go. Their calls resemble a high-pitched whinnying sound that descends in pitch towards the end. And if you’re really good, you can try to identify this species by how they drum on trees, which they do when looking for a mate or establishing a territory. The drumming is so fast it almost sounds like one uninterrupted sound!
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Dryobates villosus
- Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like beak.
- Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in California in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. But, honestly, they can be found anywhere with an abundance of large trees.
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food source, insects, isn’t as plentiful. I have the best luck attracting them using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers can be tricky to identify because they look almost identical to Downy Woodpeckers! These two birds are confusing to many people and present a problem when trying to figure out the correct species. Here are the THREE best ways to differentiate these two woodpeckers:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches (23-29 cm) long, about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches (15-18 cm) in length, slightly bigger than a House Sparrow.
- Looking at the size of their bills in relation to their head is my FAVORITE way to tell these woodpeckers apart. Downys have a tiny bill, which measures a bit less than half the length of their head, while Hairys have a bill that is almost the same length as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, you can listen for a Hairy Woodpecker:
The most common call is a short, sharp “peek.” This sound is similar to what a Downy Woodpecker makes, except it’s slightly lower in pitch. They also make a sharp rattling or whinny, which you can hear by pressing PLAY below.
#3. Northern Flicker
- Colaptes auratus
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome birds and relatively common in California.
To correctly identify one of these woodpeckers, look for a RED mustache stripe, which is found on both sexes. Also, when they are in flight, you can clearly see red-orange feathers on their underwing and tail. Lastly, Red-shafted Northern Flickers have a mostly gray face with a brown crown.
Northern Flicker Range Map
To find a Northern Flicker, you should look on the ground! These birds are unique and don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They spend a lot of time searching for ants and beetles on the forest floor by digging through the dirt! They hammer away at the soil just like other woodpeckers drill into trees.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound! Listen for a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
#4. Pileated Woodpecker
- Dryocopus pileatus
- Mostly black but with white stripes on their face and neck.
- Look for a large triangle red crest on the top of their heads.
- Males have a red stripe on their cheeks, whereas the stripe is black on females.
No other woodpecker in California makes you stop in your tracks like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE; adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (76 cm). For reference, this is about the size of a crow.
Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
Pileated Woodpeckers are found in California in large, mature forests with many dead and fallen trees. They rely on rotting wood consisting of ants, wood-boring beetles, and termites to find food, although they will supplement their diet with fruits and nuts. And if you’re lucky, it’s possible to see them in your yard visiting suet feeders!
These birds are quite vocal, and you should have no problem hearing one. Listen for a loud “cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk,” which rises and falls in pitch and volume. Just to warn you, Northern Flickers sound incredibly similar!
#5. Lewis’s Woodpecker
- Melanerpes lewis
Lewis’s Woodpeckers are incredibly unique when it comes to woodpeckers.
For example, here are a few attributes that these birds possess:
- Lewis’s Woodpeckers look different and are bulkier than other species of woodpecker. Both males and females have a green back, pink body, gray collar, and a red face patch! I think it looks like Christmas decided to make a woodpecker! 🙂
- It’s extremely rare to find these birds drilling into a tree looking for wood-boring insects. Instead, they catch insects in midair by waiting patiently from a perch, similar to flycatchers.
- Lastly, Lewis’s Woodpeckers fly using slow, deep wingbeats and frequently glide, which resembles how a crow flies. Most other woodpecker species have more of a bounding flight pattern.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Range Map
Look for these nomadic woodpeckers in California in open ponderosa pine forests, recently burned areas, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woods.
Lewis’s Woodpeckers are more silent than other woodpecker species. But during the mating season, you may hear a harsh “churr” call given by the male, repeated several times in a row. LISTEN BELOW!
#6. Red-naped Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus nuchalis
- Smaller woodpeckers with black bodies, a white vertical stripe down the wing, and a red crown.
- Male birds have a red throat and red nape (back of the neck).
- Females also have a red throat, but there is also a small white patch just under the bill, and their nape can be white or red.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are commonly found in California near aspen, birch, and willow trees. Look for their presence by examining these trees for tiny holes that have been drilled for sap.
To slurp up sap, these migratory woodpeckers have a specialized tongue. Believe it or not, they have stiff hairs on the ends, which helps drink the sap more effectively. The sap wells they create are important to them, and they spend a lot of time defending them from other birds.
Red-naped Sapsucker Range Map
Red-naped Sapsuckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers used to be lumped together as the same species. But in 1983, researchers determined that they needed to be separated into individual species. But where territories overlap, these species will breed with each other. So if you ever have trouble differentiating between sapsucker species, please know you may be looking at a hybrid!
The most common sound you will hear is a harsh, repeated “waah.” Some people think they sound like a small child crying. You can also listen for their drumming, which is relatively slow and irregular.
#7. Williamson’s Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus thyroideus
- Males: Their bodies are mostly black with large white wing patches. Faces have two distinctive white stripes running horizontally. Bellies are yellow, and the throat displays a small red patch.
- Females: Horizontal black and white barring decorate their backs. The head is brown. On their chest, look for a black breast patch.
Williamson’s Sapsuckers are typically found in California in extensive, mature coniferous forests.
These woodpeckers are unique because males and females look entirely different! This attribute is rare in woodpeckers, where both sexes typically appear similar. In fact, when these birds were first discovered, it took scientists a long time to even realize they were the same species!
Williamson’s Sapsuckers Range Map
These birds rely heavily on tree sap for food. Shallow holes are drilled into trees, called sap wells, which allow the sugary liquid to flow. Williamson’s Sapsuckers ONLY eat sap from conifer trees, leaving deciduous trees alone.
When it comes to woodpeckers, these birds make a unique sound. Their nasally descending calls (“chyahh“) sound more like a raptor!
#8. Black-backed Woodpecker
- Picoides arcticus
- These woodpeckers are relatively easy to identify since they have a solid black back.
- Males have a distinctive yellow patch on the top of their heads, which females lack.
Finding a Black-backed Woodpecker is easy! All you need to do is find forests that have been burned within the last eight years!
These woodpeckers are habitat specialists and locate recently burned areas just weeks after the fire blazes through. These birds feast on the wood-boring beetles that start infesting the dead trees. The feasting is so good that Black-backed Woodpeckers will stay in these areas from five to eight years after the initial burn.
Black-backed Woodpecker Range Map
Their call sounds like a hard or sharp “kyiik” or “pik.”
#9. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
- Dryobates scalaris
- Black and white barred back and wings, with a grayish body that includes black spots.
- They are relatively small and about the same size as a Downy Woodpecker (I think they look similar).
- Males have a red crown, which females lack.
The small size of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers allows them to be incredibly agile. This skill is required as they navigate the sharp spines and thorns of the many plants they forage on.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Range Map
Look for Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in California in places that don’t contain too many trees. I know that sounds funny for a woodpecker, but this species is found in arid habitats such as deserts, desert scrubs, thorn forests, and pinyon-juniper forests.
Listen for a clear, high-pitched “pik” call, which is often repeated and used to stay in contact with each other. These birds also give a harsh rattle call, which sounds similar to other small woodpecker species.
#10. Red-breasted Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus ruber
- Look for a medium-sized bird with a red head, red breast, and a white spot in front of the eye.
- Large white patches appear on the wings.
- Both males and females look the same.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are found in California in coniferous forests, typically at lower elevations.
As the name suggests, sapsuckers drill wells into trees to eat the sugary liquid that leaks out. Their favorite trees to use are willows and birches. In addition to sap, these woodpeckers also eat insects and some fruits.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Range Map
Interestingly, Rufous Hummingbirds tend to follow Red-breasted Sapsuckers around. These tiny birds enjoy feeding on the sap the sapsuckers get flowing and are even known to nest near the wells.
Their call is a harsh, slurred “whee-ur” or “mew.“
#11. Acorn Woodpecker
- Melanerpes formicivorus
Acorn Woodpeckers are typically easy to find in California.
You just need to find and take a walk in a forest with LOTS of oak trees and look for a bird that resembles a clown!
These woodpeckers rely on acorns as one of their primary food sources (hence the name). They have an interesting way of storing these acorns, as they put each nut into individually drilled holes in “storage” trees.
These trees, also called granaries, can house up to 50,000 nuts that the woodpeckers use for food when needed! The acorns are shoved so tightly into each space that other animals have difficulty getting them out. And amazingly, all of these tiny holes don’t kill the tree! But if you have a house with wood siding, and these woodpeckers have discovered it, you may have a hard time getting rid of them. 🙂
Acorn Woodpecker Range Map
Acorn Woodpeckers also have incredibly fascinating and complex social lives. For example, they live in family groups of up to twelve individuals. These groups cooperate in many aspects, including raising young, finding food, and guarding the food stored in their granaries.
These birds make very distinctive sounds, so make sure to listen for Acorn Woodpeckers if you find yourself hiking in an oak forest. Calls resemble “waka-waka-waka.”
#12. White-headed Woodpecker
- Dryobates albolarvatus
When it comes to woodpeckers found in California, this species is unique!
First, the White-headed Woodpecker has a truly distinctive appearance. The bird’s entire body is covered in black feathers, except for its bold white head! One look, and you know how it got its name. Males have a small red patch on the back of their heads, which females lack.
White-headed Woodpecker Range Map
Second, these woodpeckers require a very specific habitat. Look for them in mountainous old-growth pine forests in California, especially ones with open canopies and LOTS of pine cones.
White-headed Woodpeckers LOVE to eat pine seeds. They obtain their favorite food by prying and hammering against pine cones until they have gotten their reward. These birds also eat insects during warmer months, such as ants, beetles, and termites, like normal woodpeckers. And if you live within their range, make sure to put out a suet feeder, as they will visit backyards that offer a consistent food source.
White-head Woodpeckers have a call that sounds like a sharp “pee-dink” or “pee-dee-dee-dink.” But it’s not often heard, as these birds are mostly silent.
Which types of woodpeckers have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!