Gila Woodpeckers: 5 Fascinating Facts

The Gila Woodpecker is an extremely interesting species at home in places inhospitable to other birds. This medium sized, boisterous woodpecker is most often thought of as a habitat specialist living amongst the cacti of America’s deserts. In reality, that is in fact a completely accurate depiction. However, there is even more to this species than meets the eye. Here are five fascinating facts about the Gila Woodpecker.

They only live in a few States

The Gila Woodpecker is an extremely specialized species that only resides in the American southwest and Mexico. The population in the United States is concentrated in just three states; California, Arizona, and New Mexico, with the vast majority of that population residing in Arizona. Additionally, Gila Woodpeckers rarely stray from their normal range and simply don’t show up away from their expected habitats.

They thrive in places with no trees

Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro Cactus

While Gila Woodpeckers will certainly forage and nest in trees, they do not need them to survive or breed. A large part of this is because they utilize giant Saguaro Cacti as nurseries. During their breeding season, Gila Woodpeckers excavate cavities in living cacti, and then use them to raise their young. It’s worth noting that these woodpeckers typically wait a few months after creating the nest cavity to use it in order for any liquids in the cactus to dry.

They create homes for many other species

The cavities created by Gila Woodpeckers are not only used by the woodpeckers themselves. After the woodpeckers are done nesting, several other bird species may take up residence in the shelter including Elf Owls, flycatchers, thrashers, and Cactus Wrens among others.

They become aggressive during breeding season

After creating a nest cavity and taking up residence in their new cactus home, male Gila Woodpeckers actively defend their territory. They will do this by chasing off any birds that gets too close, even if that bird is a larger size such as White-winged Doves. They will also call loudly to warn other birds not to cross their boundaries.

They eat almost anything

Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker at Saguaro National Park

Gila Woodpeckers are omnivorous and eat an extremely wide variety of food items. Much of their diet consists of insects and other invertebrates including spiders, grubs, worms, grasshoppers, and cicadas, but they also eat fruits, eggs of other birds, and even hatchlings of other birds. One very important thing that Gila Woodpeckers eat is the fruit of the Saguaro cactus. During the months when this fruit is available, these woodpeckers will eat copious amounts of it and inadvertently spread the seeds to new locations, thus proliferating the spread of Saguaro cacti. Gila Woodpeckers will also visit bird feeders and eat suet, nuts, and corn.


The Gila Woodpecker is an extremely unique species of Woodpecker only found in a very specific part of North America. They are extremely tough and have found a way to survive in one of the most harsh environments in the continent. They are an important part of the ecosystem where they live, and bring a lot of energy into what can sometimes at first glance seem to be a lifeless desert.

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