Friday Fauna Feature: Gila Woodpecker

Written by Aleidys Lopez Romero

Gila woodpeckers

Photo by Mick Thompson/Flickr.


Picture this: You’re hiking around your favorite lowland region in the Sky Islands. The wind is blowing on your neck as the blazing sun sheds light on a sea of saguaros before you. A rhythmic bird call presses closer to your sunburned ears. You look up, relax, and let yourself be hypnotized by the Gila woodpecker’s black-and-white back. 

The Gila woodpecker’s grayish brown body is starkly juxtaposed by the flashy stripes that run along its back. For extra flare, males have a vibrant red spot on their heads. They’re small (3-4 ounces, up to 9 inches) but pack a punch. Dominant males are territorial within 50 yards and incessantly chase out intruding cavity-nesting birds. Gila woodpeckers dig cavities into live saguaros and create nests for their offspring. 


Gila woodpeckers enjoy munching on insects, small vertebrates, and berries. They’re also particularly fond of cactus fruits and sugar-water from hummingbird feeders. Their strong necks and long beaks allow them to peck at tree trunks and cacti when looking for food. 


Residing mostly in deserts and dry forests, Gila woodpeckers spend most of their time foraging in tall desert vegetation and tend to remain at or below elevations of 3,300 feet. Their range spans from the southwestern U.S. to Mexico, with the Sky Islands encompassing a large part of their range. 


Conservation Status: Least Concerned

Declines in saguaro cacti due to development and invasive bird species are the Gila woodpecker’s biggest threats. 

Fun Fact

Gila woodpeckers abandon their nests after they’ve raised their offspring, and the holes they’ve carved out are used as shelter by elf owls and other small bird species! 

Learn more about other species we commonly see in our Border Wildlife Study.