E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Picoides arcticus (Swainson, 1832)
Black-Backed Woodpecker
Family: Picidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Ian Routley  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #9535)

Distribution of Picoides arcticus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Adult male
The entire upperparts, including the back, scapulars, rump, and uppertail coverts are glossy black. The upperwings are also glossy black with extensive, narrow white spots or barring across the primaries (and sometimes partially across the secondaries). The tail is black with unmarked white outer tail feathers.The underparts are whitish with extensive blackish barring across the sides and flanks (most heavily concentrated on the sides of the breast). The head is primarily glossy black, with a sharply contrasting white chin and throat that are separated from the broad white moustachial stripe by a prominent black malar stripe; the white moustachial stripe extends onto the base of the nasal tufts (which are otherwise dusky-black). There is occasionally a small white spot or short stripe behind the eye. The forecrown sports a bold, well-defined, rectangular, bright yellow patch. The iris is dark, the relatively long, straight, sharply-pointed bill is dusky-black, and the legs and feet are dark grey.

Adult female
Very similar to the adult male, but lacks the yellow patch on the crown (crown is entirely glossy black).

This plumage is held into the fall (September) of the first year. This plumage is similar to the adult female, but is duller (less glossy) with a buffy wash on the underparts and more prominent and browner spotting (rather than barring) on the sides and flanks. Juvenile female tend to have the crown entirely black or with a few scattered yellow feathers on the central crown, whereas the juvenile male shows a more extensive and fully-developed yellow patch on the crown.

Total Length: 23-25 cm.
Mass: 61-88 g

Source: Pyle (1997); Dixon and Saab (2000)



The solid black upperparts distinguish this woodpecker from all other members of the genus Picoides with which it could be confused. It is most similar to the American Three-toed Woodpecker, but that species never has pure black upperparts (although some individuals can have very limited white barring on the back and could appear black-backed under poor viewing conditions). In addition, the face of the American Three-toed Woodpecker shows more extensive white, including a distinct white post-ocular stripe that is largely lacking in the Black-backed. Although juvenile Hairy Woodpecker has yellow on the head, similar to the male Black-backed Woodpecker, it has pure white underparts (lacking the black barring on the sides and flanks), a bold white patch on the back, and much more extensive white on the face. The Black-backed Woodpecker is also larger than either of these two species, particularly the American Three-toed Woodpecker.

The most commonly-heard call note of the Black-backed Woodpecker is a short, sharp kik or kyik, sometimes given in rapid series. This call is deeper and more wooden-sounding than the similar call of the Hairy Woodpecker, and is sharper and lower-pitched than the analagous call of the American Three-toed Woodpecker. Also gives a somewhat complex, multi-parted, grating or snarling ‘Rattle Call’ that consists of varying combinations of wreo, si-si-wreo, and pet-pet-wreoo phrases as well as rapid series of clicks, often concluding with a fast, rasping snarl. Other calls include soft yek notes that are given as contact calls between members of a pair.

The drum, which is produced by both sexes, is long (1.5-2+ seconds) and of moderate pace, accelerating and trailing off towards the end. Drumming is faster and longer than that of American Three-toed Woodpecker, but slower than Hairy Woodpecker (the latter also generally lacks the distinct acceleration towards the end).

Source: Winkler et al. (1995); Dixon and Saab (2000); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Displays and other mechanisms of pair formation are not known for this species, although birds do appear to remain paired throughout the year.

Nest construction occurs primarily in mid- to late May (sometimes as early as late April). Both sexes contribute to the excavation of the nest, although the male tends to contribute a greater proportion. The nest is placed in a cavity 0.5-24 m in height, although most nests occur at low levels (1-3 m). Most nests are constructed in dead trees (both coniferous and deciduous), although it will sometimes select a live tree (or even a power pole) for nest construction. The entrance hole to the cavity is 3.5-7 cm in diameter, with the cavity ranging from 20-30 cm in depth and with a diameter of 10-13 cm. The bark around the nest hole is often conspicuously chipped or scaled off.

A single clutch of (2) 3-4 (6) smooth, moderately glossy, pure white eggs is laid in mid- to late May and is incubated by both sexes for 13-14 days before hatching. Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-May and mid-June.

The nestlings are altricial and naked upon hatching. They are tended by both adults while in the nest, and fledge at ~24 days of age. Following fledging, the parents split the brood and each parent tends to 1-2 young; the young closely follow and mimic the adults throughout this period. There is no information on the fledgling period or the age at which dispersal occurs. Nestlings and dependent fledglings have been recorded in B.C. between late May to early July.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Winkler et al. (1995); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Dixon and Saab (2000)
Foraging Ecology

The Black-backed Woodpecker feeds almost exclusively on the larvae of wood-boring beetles, engraver beetles, and bark beetles (such as Mountain Pine Beetle), and typically occurs only in forests where a large percentage of the trees are dead and support substantial populations of these insects (such as following fires or bark beetle infestations). It tends to prefer to forage at mid- to upper levels on the trunks (or sometimes major branches) of coniferous trees that have been infested with these insects, and typically chooses dead trees when they are available. It sometimes descends to lower levels where it will forage near the base of the trunk or on logs or short snags in the understory. Most prey items are located through pecking or gleaning from the surface of the bark, although it regularly scales off loose sections of bark to expose insects and their larvae that are hidden underneath (often leaving tell-tale signs of scaled bark on dead trees throughout the forest). Once prey is located within the wood, the Black-backed Woodpecker will often excavate into the wood to expose the insects. This species is often remarkably stationary when foraging, and often allows close approach when it is foraging at lower levels. This species very rarely engages in flycatching behaviour to capture flying insects. Besides insects, this species has also been recorded foraging on spiders as well as some fruits and seeds.

Source: Winkler et al. (1995); Dixon and Saab (2000)


Closely associated with coniferous forests throughout its range, occurring primarily in and around areas of forest that have been significantly affected by forest fires, extensive windfall, or insect pathogens (such as Mountain Pine Beetle [Dendroctonus ponderosae]). It occurs at all elevations in the interior, although it is absent from the arid, largely treeless basins of the southern interior (Thompson, southern Okanagan) and is most abundant in montane and boreal forests. It tends to prefer forests that are dominated by spruces, Lodgepole Pine (locally in Ponderosa Pine), Douglas-fir, Tamarack, and Western Larch, as well as higher elevation forests of Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir; it is relatively scarce in wetter forests that are dominated by hemlocks and Western Redcedar. It tends to frequent slightly lower elevations than American Three-toed Woodpecker in the southern interior, although two species overlap broadly in elevation.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Dixon and Saab (2000)


Global Range

The Black-backed Woodpecker ranges across the boreal forests of North America from Alaska east to Newfoundland and Labrador, extending south to the southern limits of the boreal forest in central Alberta, central Sakatchewan, southern Manitoba, northern Michigan, central Ontario, northern New York, and the Maritime provinces. It also ranges southward in the west along mountain ranges to northwest Wyoming and eastern California (Sierra Nevada Range).
BC Distribution

Generally very uncommon throughout the interior (west to the Coast and Cascade Ranges), although it can be locally uncommon or even fairly common in areas of extensive burned or beetle-killed forests. It is least common in the wet forests of the southeastern and eastern portions of the province.

Casual to very rare throughout the year on the western slopes of the Coast and Cascade Ranges, and accidental in fall (October) in the Lower Mainland (Vancouver).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

Although generally rare to uncommon, populations of this species are large and secure enough that it does not warrant listing by either the B.C. Conservation Data Centre (CDC) or COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) as a provincial or federal species of concern. It appears to be benefitting greatly from the massive Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak that has swept across much of the interior of the province, and the species, which was formerly quite rare, is now reasonably common in many areas of pine beetle infestation


The Black-backed Woodpecker is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. It is most closely related to the American Three-toed (P.dorsalis) and Eurasian Three-toed (P.tridactylus) Woodpeckers. These three species together are differentiated from other members of the genus Picoides by their yellow (vs. red) markings on the head and their three (vs. four) toes.

Source: Dixon and Saab (2000)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS4S5BYellowNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-24 5:14:33 PM]
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