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Gila Woodpecker

This interesting woodpecker is named after the Gila River in Arizona. The “Gila” in the Gila Woodpecker is pronounced “heela”.Gila Woodpecker|Saguaro National Park|Tucson, AZ


Gila Woodpeckers are about 9 ½” long.  They have tan heads, necks, throats, breasts, and bellies, (although there is a yellow tinge to the central belly).  You will find black and white barring across their rumps, wings and backs. Their tails also have barred central tail feathers. The wings are white underneath which can be easily seen when these woodpeckers are flying. They have pointed black bills and dark red eyes. Their legs are short; they have strong toes and sharp claws.   They use their stiff tail feathers to balance and to hold themselves vertical. They have strong head and neck muscles, with skulls able to absorb the shock as they drum and hammer into trees.  Their tongues are long, barbed and sticky.

The male has a red cap on his head and a whitish forehead.  Female Gilas have an entirely brown head without the red cap. They have a smaller body and a shorter bill.  Juveniles do not have a red cap and they are duller in color than the adults.

Range and Habitat

Gila Woodpeckers are only found in the southwest, from southeast California, Baja, California, southern Arizona and New Mexico, and into Mexico.  They thrive in arid country and desert areas with a few trees such as cottonwoods, date palms, and cacti.  The Gila are known to protect the Saguaro Cactus from disease by eating the insects found on the cacti.


The Gila Woodpecker is noisy and conspicuous. These woodpeckers eat insects, ants, bird eggs, nestlings, lizards, and cactus fruit.  They can be seen foraging on the ground and in the Saguaro Cactus. They also can be found foraging in the canopy of trees, looking for irregularities in the bark and probing into holes in dead wood.  They sip nectar from flowers and at bird feeders. Like some other woodpeckers, they have been seen storing acorns. Males are usually seen foraging on the main trunk and the main branches of the saguaro; the females forage around the outside of the saguaro and around the diseased areas of the cactus.  Their noisy high pitched “yip” sounds when they are calling to each other, and when they advertise their territories.  They also have a long and steady drum and a loud “churrrrring noise.

Breeding and Nesting

Breeding for the Gila Woodpecker takes place from April-August, but most occurs in May.  If plenty of food is available, the Gila may have a second clutch in July.  The Gila bores into a cactus or uses a mesquite bush for its nest. The saguaro is a popular nesting site because the cactus provides security with its spines, and the temperature inside the cactus is regulated. After boring their nesting hole, the mating pair lets the cactus dry out for several months before they use the nest.  This allows the cactus to form a solid dry wall around the nest.  Gilas may use the same nesting hole for more than one season.

Where there are no Saguaros, the Gila will use a tree.  The nest is sometimes 20’ off of the ground.  The female lays 3-5 eggs in the nest. The males are very aggressive around their nests. They will attack other Gilas, Thrashers, Cowbirds, Flickers, and Starlings in order to protect their nests.

Both of the parents share in the two week incubation, and both parents fed the young. The young continue to be fed for a long period of time after they hatch and will leave the nest at about one month old.  The nests are used by other birds after the Gila are finished with them.