Gila Woodpecker

Melanerpes uropygialis
Range Map

The Gila Woodpecker is most abundant on the desert mesas of southern Arizona’s Sonoran desert, but their range as year-round residents extends into Mexico’s west coast and Baja California. There are reports showing the population has dropped by half from 1966 to 2014. We believe habitat losses from human development and nesting competition from European Starlings to be the chief causes of the decline.

When Gila Woodpeckers excavate their nest holes in a Saguaro cactus, they will wait at least two months, or even one year before occupying it. The cactus produces a sticky sap to seal the wound, and when the sap dries, it forms a hardened shell called a “boot.” We know less about their nesting habits in locations such as southern California’s Imperial Valley, where there are no Saguaro cacti. Large Cottonwood (Populus fremontii), Willow (Salix gooddingii) or Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) must then provide the structures needed to excavate their nest holes.

While I’ve been fortunate enough to meet these woodpeckers in the Imperial Valley, they have become scarce, or even endangered in California. Southern Arizona provides more readily available opportunities for meeting these birds than California.

Taxonomists classify three subspecies of Gila Woodpecker. They are all nonmigratory:

  • M. u. uropygialis lives in the southwestern USA from southeastern California and southern Nevada east to southwestern New Mexico, and western Mexico.
  • M. u. brewsteri lives in southern Baja California (Mexico).
  • M. u. cardonensis lives in northern and central Baja California (Mexico).

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