Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) 9.5 inchesFemale Gila Woodpecker

The Gila Woodpecker, named after the river where it was first discovered, is a year-round resident in southern Arizona. This robin-sized woodpecker is common in Sonoran desert areas as well as in lowland riparian areas such as Patagonia-Sonoita creek and the San Pedro river. Though it is typically pictured drilling holes in saguaro cactus, it has adapted well to other habitats including to cottonwood, willow, sycamore, and ash for nesting. (It seems to avoid mesquite as too hard to penetrate.) Since these birds excavate more cavities than they use, the vacant Gila Woodpecker nests are often taken over and used by other animals.

We saw Gila Woodpeckers at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek preserve in November. Nesting pairs often stay together throughout the year. They are very vocal and ready to take issue with anyone who intrudes into their territory, following and calling until you are safely out of sight. Their diet consists of insects, fruits and berries. Field marks to look for include underbody and head of grayish tan with a black and white barred back. The male has a small red cap.

Recommended reading:

Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: Arizona/New Mexico . Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, really pocket-size (4x6) guide includes most of the birds you're likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.