Dendrocopos leucotoswhite-backed woodpecker

Geographic Range

White-backed woodpeckers are one of Europe’s rarest species of woodpeckers. They can be found in a region extending from western Europe to western Russia and as far south as Greece. The densest populations of Dendrocopos leucotos are found in the coastal forests of western Norway. (Melletti and Penteriani, 2003; Mikusinski, 1998)


White-backed woodpeckers live in mature, open deciduous and mixed forests in upland or mountain regions, which have a high percentage of dead trees and fallen timber. Dendrocopos leucotos prefers broad-leaved forests of beech, birch, maple, ash, and elm that are in their late successional stages on steep or hilly terrain. They are occasionally found in coniferous forests, provided there are enough standing, dead trees. They often occur near rivers and streams. These woodpeckers prefer to live in mature, deciduous forests around 80 years old because they depend on mature, dead, or dying trees for nesting and feeding. (Carlson, 1992; Cramp, 1985; Hogstad, 1997; Stenberg, 2004; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Range elevation
    300 to 2000 m
    984.25 to 6561.68 ft

Physical Description

White-backed woodpeckers are the largest of the spotted, black-and-white woodpeckers and have an obviously larger head and beak than similar species. An adult male has a bright red region on the top of the head extending from the eyes back to the middle of the back of the head. Their iris is colored red-brown or red. Extending down the side of the face and back of the neck is white. A large black area lies in the middle of the white neck region and extends to the bill and behind the eyes up to the red portion of the crown. They have a white belly that is streaked with broad, black bars. A white-and-black striped pattern covers its back and wings. Females are slightly smaller than males and the entire top of their heads are black, not red. Males also have larger beaks than females, but this characteristic is hard to see without comparing a male and female side-by-side. Bare spots on the body, such as the beak and feet are greyish. Young white-backed woodpeckers are a dull shade of brown and appear much dirtier than adults. Both male and female young have red on their crowns, but are much lighter than adult males. Dendrocopos leucotos is set apart from a similar species, lesser spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos minor), by its large size and strongly streaked underbody and is most likely mistaken with middle spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos medius). (Cramp, 1985; Melletti and Penteriani, 2003; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    105 to 112 g
    3.70 to 3.95 oz
  • Range length
    24 to 26 cm
    9.45 to 10.24 in
  • Range wingspan
    38 to 40 cm
    14.96 to 15.75 in


White-backed woodpeckers breed only with a single mate. These birds tend to mate with the same partner year after year. The only case where they would switch partners is if one of the pair was to perish. It is not known whether or not these birds stay together outside of the breeding season. (Cramp, 1985)

Dendrocopos leucotos begin mating in February. These birds breed approximatly two weeks earlier than other woodpeckers in the same area. A nest for the eggs is usually created in a rotted tree trunk by both the male and female anywhere from 1 to 20 m above ground. The nest hole is about 7 cm wide and 30 cm deep. The mother will lay 3 to 5 eggs and both male and female will incubate for 12 to 16 days. The male will tend to the eggs during the night and the incubation will alternate between male and female during the day. After hatching, the chicks remain in the nest for 25 to 28 days. The male is the main contributor to caring for the chicks. It is not known when the newly born woodpeckers reach the age of independence, but a family bond is mainained for some time after fledging. The age of sexual maturity is not known. (Cramp, 1985; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Breeding interval
    White-backed woodpeckers breed annually.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from February to June.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 16 days
  • Range fledging age
    25 to 28 days

Both male and female Dendrocopos leucotos spend 2 to 4 weeks preparing a nest for their clutch by excavating the soft wood of a decaying tree trunk. After the clutch has been laid, the female hands over most of the duty of incubation to the male. The male incubates the eggs during the night, while both sexes take turns incubating during the day. The male is the main provider of food for the chicks and does most of the protecting. If danger is near, the male will begin drumming loudly on the trunk to protect his territory and his young. The female will drum, but with a much lighter force than the male, to alert the male of possible danger. The male will then begin to drum much louder to deter invaders. This behavior occurs before, during, and after the eggs have hatched in the nest. (Cramp, 1985; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


The lifespan of white-backed woodpeckers is not well known. Some individuals have been documented living 3 to 4 years. (Cramp, 1985)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    3 to 4 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    10.9 years


White-backed woodpeckers spend most of the day foraging for insects in dead and dying trees. A characteristic that distinguishes woodpeckers from other birds is the drumming noise they make when pounding their beaks into trees in search of food. Male drumming is generally louder than female drumming. White-backed woodpecker drumming sounds like the bounce of a ping-pong ball, the drumming is fast and strong at the beginning and slows down to a weaker, slower beat over time. Some describe it as a sound that "bounces to a halt." When alarmed by predators or by other woodpeckers, D. leucotos will adopt an erect-posture and respond with a call. (Hogstad, 1994; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Range territory size
    1 to 2 km^2

Home Range

Dendrocopos leucotos individuals are usually found in a small, 1 to 2 square kilometer home range. (Winkler, et al., 1995)

Communication and Perception

The most common call of white-backed woodpeckers is a soft and low "gig." To raise an alarm they will make a sound like "kyig, gyig." Woodpeckers are also able to communicate by drumming with their beak against a tree trunk. This noise is a way to alert others of possible threats. (Winkler, et al., 1995)

Food Habits

White-backed woodpeckers are predominantly insectivores. They feed on wood-boring and bark-living insects in the dead or decaying wood of deciduous trees, such as wood-boring beetles (Coleoptera) and their larvae. Males have longer beaks and therefore tend to forage for deeper food. Females tend to forage only under the bark layer. Because of this, males tend to forage on trees with very little bark. They will occasionally take some plant material, including wild cherries, prunes, and berries, acorns, and hazel nuts. (Hogstad, 1997; Winkler, et al., 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


There are no known predators of D. leucotos at this time. They may be most vulnerable to predation as eggs and nestlings. Nest predators may includes martens (Martes) and tree squirrels (Sciurus).

Ecosystem Roles

White-backed woodpeckers are important predators of the insect pests of trees. Their wood excavation and cavity building are important for other species that rely on nest cavities but do not build their own. White-backed woodpeckers are important indicators of a healthy, mature forest ecosystem, as they do not persist in immature or disturbed forests.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

White-backed woodpeckers are important indicators of healthy, mature deciduous woodlands in Eurasia.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There is no known negative effects on humans from this species of woodpecker.

Conservation Status

White-backed woodpeckers are listed as lower risk/least concern by the IUCN. They are threatened regionally by habitat destruction.


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Erik Bianchi (author), Kalamazoo College, Ann Fraser (editor, instructor), Kalamazoo College.



living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


uses sight to communicate


Carlson, A. 1992. Territorial dynamics in an isolated white-backed woodpecker population. Conservation Biology, 6: 450-454.

Cramp, S. 1985. Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hogstad, O. 1997. Breeding success, nestling diet and parental care in the white-backed Woodpecker. Journal of Ornithology, 138: 25-38.

Hogstad, O. 1994. Habitat selection of a viable population of white-backed woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos. Fauna Norvegica, Series C, 17: 75-94.

Melletti, M., V. Penteriani. 2003. Nesting and feeding tree selection in the endangered white-backed woodpecker. The Wilson Bulletin, 115: 299-306.

Mikusinski, G. 1998. Economic geography, forest distribution, and woodpecker diversity in Central Europe. Conservation Biology, 12: 200-208.

Stenberg, I. 2004. Secual dimorphism in relation to winter foraging in the white-backed woodpecker. Journal of Ornithology, 145: 321-326.

Winkler, H., D. Christie, D. Nurney. 1995. Woodpeckers. Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.