Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)

Photo by Thomas SchultzBlack-backed Woodpecker by Thomas SchultzBlack-backed Woodpecker distribution map


Population Information

Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for 1966-2005.

Life History

Habitat Selection

The Black-backed Woodpecker occurs in black spruce-tamarack bogs, flooded (beaver activity) lowland conifers, and burned jack pine stands. It nests in cavities found in live or dead aspen, birch, tamarack, pine, balsam fir, red maple, or spruce. Black-backed Woodpeckers often excavate cavities in the sapwood portion of tree (Dixon and Saab 2000). Nest trees average 40 cm DBH (diameter at breast height) and approx. 22-32 meters tall in the western U.S., with cavities 8-10 meters above ground. In Wisconsin the average nest trees are smaller; hence nest cavities are likely lower. Nest sites often are in areas with high tree density and in snags that are the least decayed (Saab and Dudley 1998). Bark is often removed from the snag near the entrance hole (Dixon and Saab 2000).

Habitat Availability

The coniferous lowland forests used by Black-backed Woodpeckers were widespread and relatively common historically, although they did not typically occur in large patches in Wisconsin. These forest types remain relatively common in much of their Wisconsin range today (WDNR 2005). However, beaver control programs in northern Wisconsin and fire suppression may reduce the habitat suitability in some areas. Within the Great Lakes region, coniferous lowland forests may have declined by as much as 15% and jack pine forests by as much as 79% (Snetsinger and Ventura n.d.).

Population Concerns

Due to the rarity of the Black-backed Woodpecker in Wisconsin, it is not sufficiently known whether the population is stable. This species is rarely recorded on either the Wisconsin routes of the Breeding Bird Survey or the Wisconsin Checklist Project (Temple et al. 1997, Sauer et al. 2005). Furthermore, the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas effort documented few nests. Over the six-year period (1995-2000), Atlas observers found 13 nests in Ashland, Douglas, Forest, Oneida, Price, Sawyer, and Vilas counties with possible nesting in Burnett and Shawano counties (Johnson 2006). Prior to the Atlas work, positive nesting records were reported from Douglas, Price, Iron, and Waupaca counties (Robbins 1991). Intensive, targeted survey efforts would be necessary to obtain more precise population data.

Wherever this species is found, it is likely that the suppression of fires and post-fire “salvage logging” have negative effects on its population (Dixon and Saab 2000, Wisdom et al. 2000).

Recommended Management

Management in Wisconsin should focus on the maintenance of natural patterns of forest fire, wood-boring insects, disease, and decay. Management recommendations include (1) retain all trees with nest cavities; (2) retain snags in harvested areas; (3) retain the relatively older trees and a mix of healthy and diseased trees for nesting; (4) for foraging, retain dead patches of trees in a variety of decay stages, especially insect host trees, and those susceptible to future insect occupancy; (5) retain some tall hard dead trees for woodpecker drumming; and (6) limit insecticide use in forest habitats (WDNR 2005). Conservation and management strategies for this species should be focused in the following Wisconsin ecological landscapes: Central Sand Plains, Forest Transition, North Central Forest, Northern Highland, Northwest Lowlands, Northwest Sands, and Superior Coastal Plain (WDNR 2005). Within these landscapes, the best public lands to manage for Black-backed Woodpecker include Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Vilas County Forest.

Research Needs

Standard census and survey efforts do not provide sufficient data for the Black-backed Woodpecker. More demographic studies are needed to better understand nest success, survivorship, and movement patterns in burned and unburned forests (Dixon and Saab 2000). Landscape relationships, including area sensitivity, juxtaposition of habitats, and use of corridors are virtually unknown and need research (WDNR 2005). This species’ rarity in Wisconsin makes these types of investigations difficult, but continued research on boreal forest bird communities in general is needed to reveal more aspects of this and other species’ ecology and response to forest management in Wisconsin. 

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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