Gila woodpeckers have a striking black and white barred pattern on their back, upper wings, and tail. In flight, there are also large white wing patches. The rest of the body is tan, and the male has a small, round, red cap on its crown (top of the head).
This woodpecker is native to southern Arizona, southeast California, southern Nevada, southwestern New Mexico, and western to central Mexico. It is a very active, noisy bird, with a penetrating call. Gila woodpeckers are most often seen clinging vertically to trees, cacti, or telephone poles, excavating insects with their strong bill. While hammering on wood, or sometimes even metal roofs or drainpipes, their beaks make a characteristic drumming noise. In addition to insects, they also eat various fruits and berries. Gila woodpeckers often nest in cavities carved out from saguaro cacti. Once the woodpeckers abandon their nest, a variety of other animals including lizards, owls, and rodents use them for shelter.
The gila woodpecker is part of the widespread, diverse, New World genus Melanerpes, which also includes the acorn woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus and the golden-fronted woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons. The closest relatives of the Melanerpes woodpeckers are the the sapsuckers in the genus Sphyrapicus.
- Phillips, A., J. Marshal, and G. Monson. 1964. The Birds of Arizona. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
- Rappole, J. 2000. Birds of the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, and Southern Nevada. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
- Taylor, R. C. 2005. A Birder's Guide to Southeast Arizona. American Birding Association (ABA), Inc.
- Tucson Audubon Society. 2007. Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. Tucson Audubon Society (TAS).
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: RESIDENT: southeastern California, extreme southern Nevada, central Arizona and southwestern New Mexico south through Baja California and central mainland of Mexico (AOU 1983). Near sea level to 1200 m.
Length: 24 cm
Weight: 70 grams
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Breeds throughout arid regions of southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico in arid lowland scrub, arid montane scrub, tropical deciduous forest, gallery forest, second-growth scrub, and secondary forest. Frequents deserts that have large cacti or trees suitable for nesting, dry subtropical forests, riparian woodlands, and plantations. Found in river bottoms with mesquite or cottonwood groves and dry washes (Baicich and Harrison 1997, Edwards and Schnell 2000, AOU 1998). From sea level to 1,000 m, occasionally to >1,600 m, higher in Aquascalientes (Selander and Giller 1963). In the few areas where it meets Golden-fronted Woodpecker (M. AURIFRONS), it seems to prefer drier, more desert-like habitats, whereas the Golden-fronted favors riparian woods (Selander and Giller 1963). Cover vegetation may be a significant habitat requirement. Cottonwoods and other desert riparian trees, and date palms supply cover in California. Saguaros are important habitat elements outside of California, but are scarce within the state and are not so important. Areas with parasitic berry-bearing mistletoe (PHORADENDRON SP.), particularly when on mesquite, are favored. (Edwards and Schnell 2000).
In California, found in riparian woodlands, cottonwood groves, parklands and residential neighborhoods that have tall trees all year round. Also found in orchard-vineyard and urban habitats, particularly in shade trees and date palm groves. In otherwise suitable areas in se. California, availability of excavatable tree trunks for nesting seems to be the primary factor determining presence of this woodpecker (Grinnell and Miller 1944).
In Arizona, found in desert habitats, especially with saguaro and other large cacti, semidesert, riparian woodland (cottonwood-willow, mesquite) and towns, in arid regions (Tropical and lower Subtropical zones) (AOU 1998). Density is positively correlated with the number of large saguaro cacti and negatively correlated with the slope of the area. Inhabits cottonwood-dominated habitat along lower Colorado River in winter and summer; almost absent in summer from areas dominated by screwbean mesquite (PROSOPIS PUBESCENS) and from areas without snags (Brush et al. 1983). Gila Woodpeckers did not occur in isolated cottonwood groves of less than 50 ac (20ha) in Arizona (Rosenberg et al. 1991).
In New Mexico, confined to lower elevation woodlands, especially those dominated by mature cottonwoods and/or sycamores, along stream courses (Hubbard 1987). In NE Baja California, found along streams in cottonwoods (POPULUS DELTOIDES) and willows (SALIX SP.) at Rancho Rosarito and sparingly at El Palmarito in scattered palms along an arroyo (Short and Banks 1965). However, also found in two Baja California localities without saguaro where likely nesting in desert fan palms (ERYTHEA ARMATA, Cornett 1986).
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Largely non-migratory. Some individuals move short distances north or to higher elevation during the winter (Kaufman 1996).
Comments: Forages primarily on bark and on large branches (e.g. trunks ) in inner portion of trees (Rosenberg et al. 1982), cacti, and bushes (Short 1982), pecking, probing (inserting bill in crevices, fruits or flowers), and gleaning insects and other food items from vegetation and occasionally from the ground. (Edwards and Schnell 2000). Gila Woodpeckers probe and glean more often than Ladder-backed Woodpeckers (Brush et al. 1983) Visits saguaro flowers and fruiting plants most often during cooler hours, when sun is less than direct. During hotter portions of day, forages in interior portions of foliage.
Essentially omnivorous. Eats the fruit of saguaro and other cacti (Baicich and Harrison 1997) which are an important food source during the summer. Feeds on a variety of insects (e.g. ants, grasshoppers, beetles, grubs), sometimes taking worms, small lizards, eggs of other bird species (including chicken eggs, Edwards and Schnell 2000) berries, corn in fields, honey (Short 1982), and occasionally comes to bird feeders for suet. Cicadas may be a high proportion of the diet (Rosenberg et al. (1982). Mistletoe and lycium berries frequently consumed.
Holes produced by this woodpecker provide quarters many other bird species, mammals and reptiles, which also compete with it for nest sites (Winkler et al. 1995). Nesting cavities are utilized by American Kestrel, Elf Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Cactus Wren, lizards, snakes, rats, mice, etc. In Arizona, European Starling has had negative impact on Gila Woodpecker due to saguaro nest site competition, especially in area near agriculture and large lawns (Kerpez and Smith 1990b).
Declines in Gila Woodpecker numbers could have a negative impact on the entire bird and wildlife community that nests in saguaro cacti. Also, declines might directly affect survival of the saguaro itself because the woodpeckers may be important pollinators of the cacti (Edwards and Schnell 2000)
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Apparently a monogamous and solitary breeder. Highly defensive against all avian intruders (Gillman 1915), particularly Gilded Flickers and European Starlings with which it competes for nest cavities (Erlich et al. 1988). Breeding season from April through July, with peak activity in April and May, usually ending in June-August.
Digs nest cavity in saguaro cactus (CARNEGIEA GIGANTIA) and Cordon (PACHYCEREUS PRINGLEI) cacti (Robbins et al. 1983), and to a lesser extent in cottonwoods (POPULUS), and willow (SALIX) (Bent 1939). Along the lower Colorado River, some nests found in honey mesquite (PROSOPIS GLANDULOSA) or screwbean (P. PUBESCENS; Anderson et al. 1982). Rarely nests in oaks and paloverde (CERCIDIUM SP.; Bent 1939), and in blue fan palm (ERYTHEA ARMATA) in one northern Baja California at locality without large cacti (Cornett 1986). In southern Arizona, Kerpez and Smith (1990a) report the greatest number of nests found in saguaro cacti in arroyos, where Gila Woodpeckers forage; fewer nests found in cacti on hillsides, ridgetops, or desert flats.
Does not nest in saguaros less than 4 (Karol and Hutto 1984) or 5 m tall in southern Arizona (Kerpez and Smith 1990a). Saguaro used for nesting are taller and more likely to have branches than randomly chosen saguaros. Nests rarely excavated above about 7 m (Karol and Hutto 1984, Smith 1990b), but rarely as low as 1 m (Edwards and Schnell 2000)
Nest hole excavated by both sexes in a living cactus or dead tree. Holes in living cacti can be used only after they have dried out. (Winkler et al. 1995), typically several months. May occupy the same nesting hole for more than one season until it is appropriated by an owl, kestrel, snake or large lizard. Non-randomly place nest holes on saguaro cacti in order to regulate its internal temperature. In cooler environments nest holes are often on the south-facing side, whereas on hotter environments the nest is placed on the north-facing side (Karol and Hutto 1984, Inouye et al. 1981). Nest holes are frequently excavated in live cactus after the nesting season to facilitate their drying.
Clutch size is three to five (Short 1982), rarely six eggs, with fewer eggs in second clutch (Bent 1939). Incubation poorly studied but reported to be 13 -14 days (Baicich and Harrison 1997). Both sexes incubate. Both males and females feed young (Edwards and Schnell 2000). Young leave nest about four weeks of age and are fed by adults for an extended period of time. Family grounds may remain together while adults renest. (Edwards and Schnell 2000). Can fly at approx. one month and in most cases a second brood fledges by late June. Family groups stay in territory after nesting until the young disperse or are driven away prior to the next breeding attempt.(Winkler et al. 1995). Sometimes 2-3 broods if food is abundant (Baicich and Harrison 1997). Brood parasitism not known to occur in this species.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Melanerpes uropygialis
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Melanerpes uropygialis
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Comments: HABITAT: Threatened by habitat loss and degradation throughout its range. In the southwestern U.S., loss and fragmentation of riparian woodland to development and other human uses has significantly impacted this species. Few healthy native woodlands remain, which force birds into less than ideal habitats. (Remsen 1978). In the lower Colorado River valley, reduction of suitable native habitat is thought to restrict viability of local populations (Rosenberg et al. 1991). Development continues to negatively impact this species throughout the Sonoran Desert (Kerpez and Smith 1990a and 1990b). Riparian woodlands are among the most severely threatened habitats in the state of Arizona, which encompasses the core of the Gila Woodpecker's U.S. range. Similarly, in New Mexico, habitat destruction, particularly the clearing of cottonwoods, is the principal threat to the species in the state. (NMDGF 1994). Riparian areas have been heavily used by humans throughout history because of the availability of water and the retreats they offered from the surrounding desert. In recent times, dams, water pumping and diversions, clearing for agriculture or development, grazing, recreation, wood cutting, and other human induced disturbances have severely impacted and fragmented riparian communities (Szaro 1989). Information is lacking, but it is likely that these land-use patterns are relatively consistent throughout the arid regions of this species' range. COMPETITION: Competition with other species for nest holes is thought to be a factor in population declines, especially in the California population. Competition between starlings and Gila Woodpeckers will probably become more severe and widespread with time as starling numbers continue to increase and spread.
Restoration Potential: Riparian habitat restoration projects have been shown to benefit this species. However, the success of these projects depends largely upon restoring natural flow regimes to rivers and eliminating destructive land uses over large stretches of river, an often difficult task. Improved management techniques in urbanized and natural areas will be required. Protection of key habitat parcels will be essential.
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: Maintain large patches of riparian cottonwood groves (> 20 ha) Isolated mature cottonwood-willow groves smaller than this size will likely be devoid of woodpeckers. In general, the smaller the habitat patch, the less likely this species will be present (Edwards and Schnell 2000).
Management Requirements: RIPARIAN HABITAT: Successful management will include preservation of high quality riparian and desert communities and allow regeneration of sycamore and cottonwood groves, and should be expected to benefit this species throughout its range. Floodplains that still undergo a natural flooding cycle are of high priority because floods create the conditions needed for the growth of tree and shrub seedlings (Askins 2000).
Likely to benefit from riparian forest revegetation efforts when trees reach size suitable for nesting (California Department of Fish and Game). Restoration efforts in the Colorado River Valley have included planting a diversity of native plants, and girdling cottonwoods that were several years, creating dead trees that have been excavated and used by Gila Woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds.
Arizona's Partner's in Flight Bird Conservation Plan (Latta et al. 1999) suggests that management for other priority species (e.g., Common Black-hawk, BUTEOGALLUS ANTHRACINUS) using similar habitat components in Low Elevation Riparian Habitat are likely to benefit Gila Woodpecker, and suggest several categories of action including:
1. Avoid or minimize water diversions that decrease or eliminate perennial flow.
2. Avoid flood-control practices that reduce water availability to riparian habitat.
3. Reduce or avoid activity such as riparian travel, work, grazing, etc. in areas that have less than 2 year-old seedlings becoming established.
4. Locate urban development away from riparian areas and associated floodplain.
5. Work with land owners to restore, establish and maintain habitat through conservation easements, incentive programs, etc.
General guidelines for improving riparian habitat (Latta et al. 1999) also include:
1. Manage for large, contiguous blocks of habitat (>20 ha) in conjunction with removal of competing exotic species (i.e. saltcedar) (Laymon and Halterman 1987).
2. Avoid channelization of rivers.
3. Allow regeneration of sycamore and cottonwood groves.
4. Closely monitor grazing impacts on cottonwood and willow seedlings in riparian systems and reduce or remove grazing when seedlings are being impacted.
5. Maintain flow regimes that mimic natural level and timing of high and low water to allow accumulation of sediments and subsequent establishment of seedlings.
6. Promote natural regeneration from seed sources. Augment with plantings (>15 ha) when necessary (Laymon and Halterman 1987).
7. Limit or eliminate use of pesticides adjacent to riparian areas; if used, apply locally to avoid drift into adjacent habitat (i.e. not broad applications).
DESERT/URBAN HABITAT: Successful management will include conservation of core areas of high quality habitat. Edwards and Schnell (2000) highlight the importance of Sonoran Desert habitat in areas such as Saguaro National Monument, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (all in Arizona), as well as state and county parks. Conservation of these sites will benefit this and other desert species.
Efforts should be made to maintain native vegetation where possible in urban areas. Mills et al. (1989) found that in Tucson, Arizona, densities of birds in urban areas with a high percentage of native vegetation (29 birds / sq. km) was higher than in urban areas with a high percentage of exotic vegetation (16 birds /sq. km), natural desert areas with native vegetation and no houses (9 birds / sq. km), as well as with urban parks and cemeteries with exotic vegetation and no houses (5 birds / sq. km). Tweit and Tweit (1986) noted that residential development at density of 2 houses / ha did not reduce Gila Woodpecker densities if native vegetation was maintained. Emlen (1974) and Mills et al. (1989) even found higher Gila Woodpecker numbers on urban than nonurban sites in Tucson, AZ. (Edwards and Schnell 2000)
Most importantly, maintaining habitat in urbanized area means giving special attention to preserving large saguaros (Tweit and Tweit 1986). Adequate saguaro reproduction and survival are critical to ensure that large saguaros remain available as future nest sites for Gila Woodpeckers (Kerpez and Smith 1990a). Tweit and Tweit (1986) evaluated effects of urban development in Tucson area of Arizona, where urban sites varied widely in composition of vegetation cover from almost entirely exotic to almost entirely native vegetation. As few palm trees found on their sites; they concluded that abundance of this species outside riparian areas is determined by the number of saguaros available for nesting and roosting. In addition, they found that numbers of Gila Woodpeckers were not substantially higher in areas with restricted development (i.e., about 2 houses / ha).
Management Research Needs: There are no ongoing management programs targeted at this species. The following research needs relevant to management were described by Edwards and Schnell (2000):
1. Describe various aspects breeding including pair formation, incubation, hatching, parental care, departure dates and growth of young.
2. Investigate demographic parameters such as life span and causes of mortality.
3. Further investigate the effects of human development on Gila Woodpecker. Relationships appear complex and human populations are increasing throughout much of its range.
Other research that might improve management:
1. Determine if commonly used levels of pesticides are harmful to Gila Woodpecker. Are safe levels being exceeded?
2. Determine if breeding habitat requirements differ on a regional basis.
3. Determine if revegetated sites have the same occupancy rate as naturally regenerated areas - all other characteristics being relatively equal (stand age, spp. composition, stand size etc.).
4. Determine if revegetated sites (natural or anthropomorphic) have the same occupancy rate as unaltered sites - all other characteristics being relatively equal (stand age, spp. composition stand size etc.).
5. Identify prey base - Is there any difference (quality or quantity) in different habitat types and across their range?
Biological Research Needs: Edwards and Schnell (2000) describe several gaps in our knowledge. A detailed multivariate examination of morphologic geographic variation or molecular comparison may improve our understanding of this species systematics and variation. Most populations appear resident, but further study into seasonal movement and habitat use are warranted. Also needed are multi-season, quantitative studies of food habits. Further information is needed on range of vocalizations and basic call types, phenology of vocalizations, daily patterns of vocalizing, and basic behavior including hopping, climbing, and flight (Edwards and Schnell (2000).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Stewardship Overview: Commonly breeds in the southwestern U.S. and western Mexico in desert scrub and riparian forest where large cactus or snags are available for excavation. Regional declines due to destruction and degradation of desert and riparian habitats. Stewardship needs include better monitoring, especially where human impacts are increasing and protection of high quality riparian and desert habitat is key to maintaining populations. Evidence suggests that riparian forests tracts > 20 ha should be protected. Reducing impacts to riparian areas and initiating restoration efforts are essential components of a successful management strategy.
The Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) is a medium-sized woodpecker of the desert regions of the southwestern United States. They range through southeastern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.
This woodpecker's habitat consists of low desert scrub typical of the Sonoran Desert. They build nests in holes made in saguaro cacti or mesquite trees. Cavities excavated by these woodpeckers in saguaro cacti are later used by a variety of other species, including the elf owl. There, they typically lay 3–5 white eggs.
The back and wings of this bird are spotted and barred with a black and white zebra-like pattern. The neck, throat, belly and head are greyish-tan in color. The male has a small red cap on the top of the head. Females and juveniles are similar, but both lack the red cap of the adult male. White wing patches are prominent in flight. The dark tail has white bars on the central tail feathers. They range from 8–10 in (20–25 cm) in length.
This woodpecker's voice is a rolling churr sound. It also makes a yip yip yip sound and a kee-u, kee-u, kee-u sound. Its drum is long and steady.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Melanerpes uropygialis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Mark Elbroch; Eleanor Marie Marks; C. Diane Boretos (2001). Bird tracks and sign. Stackpole Books. p. 311. ISBN 0-8117-2696-7. "Cavities in saguaro cactuses in the Southwest are common. Both gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers make these cavities for nesting, but they often choose different locations on the cactus."
- "Gila Woodpecker". Nature Conservancy. Retrieved 2011-10-28. "Although they do not use them immediately, waiting first for the sap to harden, Gila Woodpeckers excavate cavities in cacti and trees as nesting sites."
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Considered conspecific with M. HYPOPOLIUS by some authors. Hybridizes locally with M. AURIFRONS in western Mexico. Sometimes placed in the genus CENTURUS (AOU 1983).