White-Backed Woodpecker

White-Backed Woodpecker   


White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.


Other English name: Lilford’s Woodpecker (for lilfordi race when treated as a full species).


Genus: Dendrocopos, Koch 1816. First described as Picus leucotos by Bechstein in 1803.



Above: Adult female leucotos. Bakony Hills, Hungary (Gábor Vasuta).


Distribution/Range: The global range of White-backed Woodpecker lies within the Palearctic from Fenno-Scandia and central Europe eastwards through boreal Asia, to Kamchatka, China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Though generally regarded as an “eastern”? species White-backed Woodpeckers probably inhabited all of Europe including Britain in the past, possibly up to the Middle Ages, when there was still much old forest covering the landscape. Today it is Europe’s rarest woodpecker, being often very local in the boreal and temperate zones of central and Eastern Europe, Fenno-Scandia and Russia. Elsewhere it has a rather scattered distribution with small relic populations of the lilfordi race in the Pyrenees, the Balkans and the Apennines. Italy is home to some isolated populations of the lilfordi race (leucotos is accidental and very rare in the north of the country with a few records from Liguria, Lombardia and Trentino). The two known populations of lilfordi are in central and southern Italy respectively. The most important is in the Abruzzo Mountains in the Apennines in old beech forests, and has been known since 1929 and confirmed in 1959. The Abruzzo National Park, Majella National Park, Monti della Laga National Park and Terminillo Mountains all hold small numbers. Over most of its range White-backed Woodpecker is uncommon, if not rare, though in some areas such as the Carpathians and the lowland forests of Belarus it is widely distributed. A major contraction in range, particularly in the west of Europe, occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet despite its overall rarity in Europe the species can be locally the most common woodpecker. For example, in the old mixed forests of the Austrian Chalk Alps White-backed Woodpecker is more common than Great Spotted.




Measurements: Length 24-26 cm. Wingspan 38-40 cm, hence the largest Dendrocopos woodpecker in Europe, some 2-3 cm longer than Great Spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers.


General: Not difficult to identify once found, immediately appearing to be rather long-necked and long-billed. Nominate leucotos race described here (lilfordi race below). Has a white upper-rump and lower-back but not as “white-backed”? as name suggests. The upper back is glossy black, but the “white-back”? is sometimes obscured and difficult to see, especially when perched. Rather, it is the white barred coverts, particularly the upper broad white bar of the median coverts that are seen. When a bird takes flight the large white area composed of the lower scapulars, lower back and upper rump comes into view. In most cases this white area is crescent-shaped and connects with the uppermost wing bars. However, on some birds this white area is only slightly broader than the white upper-wing bars. The amount of white on the lower back also varies. There can also be significant variation between birds in the shape and extent of their white back. Individual plumage variations can sometimes exist between populations and sometimes within them.  The wings are black but dotted with white on the greater coverts. The flight feathers are crossed by rows of large white spots that almost form bars. White bars on the upper-wing, are often obscured by the white back patch, which sometimes forms a broad fringe across the back. The broad white bar on the upper-wing is striking when in flight and on perching birds seen from side. On a rear view heavy white barring can be seen to extend across the closed tertials (unlike Great Spotted and Syrian). The scapulars are glossy black. The upper-tail coverts and most of the rectrices are black. The outer rectrices are white with thin black barring. The ventral region and under-tail coverts are pink, never red, and not strongly demarcated from the whitish belly (as Great Spotted). The pink extends up and merges into the lower belly and sometimes colours the flanks and leg feathering (as Middle Spotted). Under-parts are white or cream, but often with a yellowish hue. Long black streaks cover the flanks, and sides of the breast and belly (as Middle Spotted). Despite having pink and yellow areas on the under-parts, White-backed Woodpecker always shows much white in flight. The face pattern can vary slightly from bird to bird but typically the black malar stripe starts from the lower mandible (unlike Middle Spotted) and meets the post-auricular stripe on the side of the neck to form a black T-junction. From here a black stripe runs down to the sides of the neck and onto the upper breast, and below this the black flank streaking is strongest. The post-auricular stripe runs over and across the ear-coverts towards the nape, but not touching it (like Syrian and Middle Spotted but unlike Great Spotted). Face, chin and throat are all white but buff behind the eye. On a rear view a black linking stripe from black nape down to glossy black mantle can be seen (recalling Middle Spotted). The forehead and lores are greyish. The bill is grey, long and very thin at the tip. Iris reddish brown. Legs and toes grey.


Above: Adult male leucotos. Bükk Hills, Hungary (László Nehézy)


Adult male: As is the case (though to varying degrees) with other “pied” woodpeckers in Europe, White-backed males are slightly heavier, bigger and have longer bills than females. Bill length is the most significant morphological feature in terms of sexual dimorphism, but is not rarely noticeable in the field and only when a pair is seen together. The all red crown is the main feature distinguishing males from females (which lack red on the head(. Sometimes these red feathers have visible dark bases. On some males the pink of the under-tail coverts and vental area reaches as far as the lower belly, lower flanks and leg feathering. On females it is usually less extensive, though this is variable.



Above: Adult male leucotos. Estonia, 2.4.2005 (Uku Paal)


Adult female: Lacks red crown. Complete crown from forehead to nape black. Overall slightly smaller than male. Bill slightly shorter than on male but not really noticeable in the field.



Above: adult female leucotos. Bükk Hills, Hungary (Szabolcs Kókay).


Juveniles: Sexually dimorphic whilst still in the nest. It takes around seven months (i.e. into the winter following fledging) for juveniles to attain full adult plumage. Juveniles are duller and browner than adults. Black areas never glossy. White areas are greyer, dirtier than on adult. Grey smudge over ear-coverts and behind eye. Pink ventral region is smaller and paler than on adult. Dark streaks on under-body more diffuse. Both male and female juveniles have red on the crown (see below), but not as strong as on adults; it is sometimes rather rusty and with grey or black flecks. Bare parts are grey.


Juvenile male: Has all red crown which extends at the back of the head to the black nape and sideways to the white cheeks. This becomes apparent around twelve days after hatching and is more pronounced as birds peep out of the hole prior to fledging. Male fledglings are generally heavier, and have longer bills and tarsi than sibling females though these factors only noticeable in the hand.


Juvenile female: Has red only on fore-crown (adult female has none) but often rather patchy, and always less than on juvenile male. Sometimes merely a few red feathers. Extent of red on the crown becomes evident some twelve days after hatching.



Above: Juvenile female leucotos, Varmland, Sweden, May 1994 (Göran Ekström). Note only a hint of pink on the forecrown on this bird.


Races: The general features described above for nominate leucotos apply equally to the southern European lilfordi. However, there are some striking and important differences in plumage that together with wing and bill measurements, voice, habitat selection and distribution, have resulted in this race being considered a separate species i.e. Lilford’s Woodpecker. Lilfordi is slightly larger, overall darker and more heavily streaked with long, black, flecks on the flanks, breast and belly. In addition to vertical streaks there are also some horizontal bars on the flanks that nominate lacks. The pink ventral area extends further up onto the belly than leucotos, often onto the lower breast. Under-parts various shades of white, cream, often dusky or tinged buff and always more marked and darker than leucotos. The forehead, lores, cheeks and throat are also more yellow. The black post-auricular stripe and malar stripe are broader and, where they join to form a T-junction, below the ear-coverts, a larger black area is formed. Face patterns may vary slightly from bird to bird but on all the post-auricular stripe runs over the ear-coverts and finishes much closer to, or even touches, the nape. On leucotos it never touches the nape and a wider white gap is clear. Wings have narrower white bars than on nominate. But above all lilfordi lacks the clear white lower-back and upper rump patch of leucotos race. Lilfordi is thus less “white-backed”? than leucotos. It is rather “barred-backed”? or “ladder-backed”? due to the white-back and upper-rump being vermiculated with black. The rump often seems totally black.


Adult male lilfordi: Has a red crown edged with black. Slightly larger and longer billed than female.


Adult female lilfordi: Lacks red on the crown, which is totally black.



Above: adult female lilfordi race, Abruzzo, Italy (Paul Harris).


Juvenile lilfordi: not as glossy as adults, often rather brownish. As with nominate sexually dimorphic from an early age, even when in the nest. White areas are dirtier, buffier. Dark smudge over ear-coverts and behind eye. Pink under-tail and ventral region is smaller and paler than on adult. Very heavily streaked on the body. Both sexes have red crowns (to varying extents), but red not as strong as on adults, sometimes rather orange, edged with black and sometimes flecked with grey-black feather tips.


Juvenile male lilfordi: Complete red crown extends to the black nape and sideways to the white cheeks. Longer billed and legged than sibling females but this only noticeable in the hand.


Above: Juvenile female lilfordi race, Abruzzo, Italy (Paul Harris)


Juvenile female lilfordi: If there is any red at all on the crown it is only on the fore-crown to central crown. Always less red than on juvenile male. Sometimes merely a few red tips can be seen and, as in photo above, there can sometimes be no red visible at all.

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