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Black-backed Woodpecker
Picoides arcticus
– Family
Authors: Dixon, Rita D., and Victoria A. Saab

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Black-backed Woodpecker, adult male.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Black-backed Woodpecker.
Black-backed Woodpecker, adult female.

One of the most enigmatic woodpeckers in North America, and likely to remain so because of its general rarity, the Black-backed Woodpecker breeds from central Alaska and northern Canada to montane areas of California and New England. Despite its widespread breeding distribution, this species is confined mostly to burned-over coniferous forest sites. It is an irruptive species that forages opportunistically on outbreaks of wood-boring beetles in recently burned habitats. This restricted diet renders the species vulnerable to local and regional extinction as fire-suppression programs and postfire salvage logging increase.

The Black-backed Woodpecker’s sooty black dorsal plumage camouflages it against the charred bark of the trees that it favors for foraging. Its loud foraging taps, calls, and drumming patterns, however, facilitate detection. Both the Black-backed and its congener the Three-toed Woodpecker are easily approached, but the Black-backed often challenges an intruder with its Scream-Rattle-Snarl Call, one of the most distinctive and complex calls among Picoides woodpeckers. Three toes instead of four and, in males, a yellow crown patch instead of red, distinguish both the Black-backed and Three-toed woodpeckers from all other woodpeckers.

This species’ dependence on fire landscapes and other large-scale forest disturbances is well known and exemplified by studies in Montana, Michigan, Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Minnesota), Northern Rockies, Alaska, and Alberta (Blackford 1955, Mayfield 1958, Heinselman 1973, Apfelbaum and Haney 1981, Hutto 1995, Caton 1996, Murphy and Lehnhausen 1998, Hoyt 2000). Irruptive movements of Black-backed Woodpeckers into southeast Canada and the northeastern United States have been well documented, and demonstrate this species’ remarkable ability to travel long distances (Van Tyne 1926, West and Speirs 1959, Yunick 1985). In addition, studies in New Hampshire, Québec, and Manitoba provide valuable data on nesting, behavior, acoustical signals, and foraging behavior (Kilham 1966, Short 1974, Winkler and Short 1978, Villard and Beninger 1993, Villard 1994). For the future, studies that should prove especially useful in understanding the Black-backed Woodpecker’s unique relationship to forest ecology include (1) distinguishing between edges of stand-replacement fires and the interiors of burns, (2) the use of burns in relation to the abundance of cerambycid beetle prey, (3) territoriality, (4) overwinter pair relations, and (5) population dispersal following the end of insect outbreaks in burns or diseased forests.