Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)

Life History & Michigan History

Michigan often sits on the northern edge of the range for a number of species. For the black-backed woodpecker, Michigan sits on the southern edge. This woodpecker, was also known as the three-toed arctic woodpecker, is primarily found in northern boreal forests.

Black-backed WoodpeckerThe black-backed woodpecker is a small woodpecker ranging 8-9 inches in length. Males can be easily identified by the yellow patch of feathers on the crown of their black head. Both sexes have a glossy, black back with some barring on the primary feathers. A white stripe runs from behind their bill down under their eye.

In Michigan, these woodpeckers are most abundant in the Upper Peninsula. They prefer habitats with growing tree species similar to their boreal forest. Black spruce and tamarack swamps, white cedar swamps, eastern hemlock, and jack pine forests all provide good habitat. Like most woodpeckers, they feed on insects living in dead or diseased trees. Places disturbed by fire or even beaver floodings can provide good food sources. They hunt for wood boring insects by peeling patches of dead bark.

Black-backed woodpeckers in northern lower Michigan are associated with jack pine areas and can often be seen in the same areas as Kirtland’s warblers. Historically, wildfires kept an abundant supply of dying timber. Modern forest management practices in jack pine stands provide abundant snags (dead trees) for woodpeckers to forage (feed). Nest cavities are made in live conifer trees with the entrance usually 8-15 feet above ground. Each nest will contain two-six eggs which hatch after 14 days of incubation.

Keeping these special woodpeckers in Michigan will require that natural processes, beaver floodings, and forest management activities like prescribed burns and leaving snags continue to provide foraging places for these northern residents.

Non-DNR Links

Identification Tips & More (USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

Picoides arcticus (NatureServe)

Picoides arcticus (University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology)