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A photo of a Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), male
Black-backed Woodpecker, Male

Black-backed Woodpecker

Picoides arcticus

The black-backed woodpecker, known scientifically as Picoides arcticus and colloquially as the Arctic three-toed woodpecker, is a bird of medium stature, measuring approximately 23 cm (9.1 in) in length. It is distinguished by its predominantly black plumage, which adorns the head, back, wings, and rump, contrasting with the white underparts extending from throat to belly. The flanks are white, barred with black, and the tail is black with white outer feathers. A notable feature of this species is the presence of only three toes on each foot, a trait shared with its close relatives, the American and Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers. The adult male is further characterized by a striking yellow cap, a touch of color amidst the otherwise somber hues.

Identification Tips

When identifying the black-backed woodpecker, look for the following key features:

  • Length: 9.1 inches (23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.1–3.1 oz (60–88 g)
  • Wingspan: 15.8–16.5 in (40–42 cm)
  • Black plumage with white underparts and barred flanks
  • Male-specific yellow cap
  • Three-toed feet, a unique adaptation among woodpeckers

Habitat

The black-backed woodpecker is a denizen of the boreal forests, thriving in regions across Canada, Alaska, the Northwestern United States, and parts of the Great Lakes region, including northern Wisconsin, New York's Adirondacks, New England, Minnesota, and Upper Michigan. This species exhibits a particular affinity for burnt forests, where it plays a crucial ecological role.

Distribution

This woodpecker's range extends throughout the boreal forests of North America, with a year-round presence in its chosen habitats. It is a non-migratory bird, although historical records indicate occasional irruptions beyond its usual range.

Behaviour

The black-backed woodpecker is a burnt-forest specialist, adept at exploiting the wood-boring beetle populations that proliferate in recently burnt trees. It primarily feeds by pecking at the wood, with a smaller portion of its diet obtained by gleaning insects from branches. Nesting occurs in the spring, with each pair excavating a new nest annually. Other bird species often reuse these abandoned cavities for their own nesting purposes.

Song & Calls

The vocal repertoire of the black-backed woodpecker includes a distinctive call note, a single, sharp "pik" sound, which is lower in pitch compared to that of the American three-toed woodpecker.

Breeding

Breeding activities commence in April and May, with the woodpecker couple sharing the responsibility of incubating the eggs. The male takes on the sole duty of incubation during the night. After hatching, the altricial chicks are brooded until they reach the nestling phase, with both parents contributing to feeding. Fledging occurs approximately 24 days post-hatching.

Similar Species

The black-backed woodpecker can be confused with other woodpecker species, but its three-toed feet and the male's yellow cap are distinguishing characteristics. It shares its three-toed trait with the American and Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers.

Diet and Feeding

The diet of the black-backed woodpecker is largely composed of wood-boring beetles, particularly from the Cerambycidae and Buprestidae families, as well as engraver beetles and the mountain pine beetle. Its foraging technique is predominantly pecking, with occasional gleaning.

Conservation status

The IUCN Red List classifies the black-backed woodpecker as Least Concern, indicating a stable population without significant threats to its conservation status at this time.

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