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Pale-billed Woodpecker

Campephilus guatemalensis

Pale-billed Woodpecker

  • Order: Piciformes
  • Family: Picidae
  • Polytypic 3 Subspecies

Authors: Schulenberg, Thomas S.



The Pale-billed Woodpecker is a large, black and white woodpecker with a crested, red head. The bill is heavy and is ivory or yellowish white. It is broadly sympatric (and often syntopic) with the superficially similar Lineated Woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus); see Similar Species.

Similar Species

The distribution of the Pale-billed Woodpecker broadly overlaps that of the Lineated Woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus), which is superficially similar to Pale-billed. In all plumages, the Lineated Woodpecker has conspicuous black and white lines along the side of the face. These are lacking in Pale-billed Woodpecker, on which the head is entirely red (male) or is red with a black forecrown (female). The white stripes on the upperparts of the Lineated Woodpecker are roughly parallel with one another, and do not meet, whereas the white stripes on the upperparts of the Pale-billed Woodpecker tend to converge on the lower back (thus forming a “V” pattern) (Ridgely and Gwynne 1989, Stiles and Skutch 1989, Howell and Webb 1995). Additionally, the crest of Lineated Woodpecker is more tufted, in contrast to the somewhat bushier crest of Pale-billed (Howell and Webb 1995). The two species also differ by voice and drum (see Vocalizations and Nonvocal Sounds).
The Pale-billed Woodpecker also is similar to Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucos). Crimson-crested Woodpecker occurs north to western Panama, but is not to overlap with Pale-billed Woodpecker. Crimson-crested Woodpecker has white at the base of the bill and at least some black and white on the sides of the face (Ridgely and Gwynne 1989).


A characteristic call of the Pale-billed Woodpecker is a variable, nasal chatter or sputter (Stiles and Skutch 1989, Howell and Webb 1995; e.g., ML 28104). Less frequently heard calls include low whining notes giving by a pair when they meet at the nest (Skutch 1969) and a low whining or moaning call (Skutch 1969). A loud “bleating” call also is reported (Sutton and Pettingill 1942, Skutch 1969), which Sutton likened to a call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) (Sutton and Pettingill 1942).

Nonvocal Sounds

The drum of the Pale-billed Woodpecker is typical of Campephilus woodpeckers: a loud, rapid, double rap (Skutch 1969, Stiles and Skutch 1989, Howell and Webb 1995). Rarely, the drum is a resonant series of up to seven rapid raps (Howell and Webb 1995).

Detailed Description (appearance)

The Pale-billed Woodpecker is sexually dimorphic. The following description is based on Wetmore (1968), and refers to nominate guatemalensis.

Adult male: Male Pale-billed Woodpecker. Photo © Laura EricksonEntire head (including the throat) is bright red; sometimes there is a small, indistinct grayish brown spot on the auriculars. The feathers on the rear crown and the back of the head are elongated, producing a bushy crest. Neck and back largely black, except for a white or buffy white stripe down each side of the neck to the interscapular area on the back, these two lines turning inward and converging or nearly converging on the lower back. Uppersurface of wings black. Remiges black, except that the outer webs of the outer primaries are dull brown above, and are greenish olive-yellow on the underside; also, the longer primaries are tipped with dull white. Rectrices dull brown; undersurfaces of the outer rectrices are dull olive-brown. Lower foreneck and upper breast black. Remaining underparts are light yellowish buff, narrowly barred with black.

Adult female: Similar to the adult male, but the center of the crown and the forecrown are black, as is the foreneck and throat (except for the chin, which is red).

Hatchling: Nearly naked, with pink skin (Skutch 1969), and a large, conspicuous white knob on either side of the base of the mandible. These knobs apparently persist until the nestling fledges (Skutch 1969).

Immature: Both sexes are similar to the adult female, but the sides of the head are dull black, faintly lined with red. An earlier plumage stage (juvenile?) is similar, but the belly is uniform buffy, lacking the black barring of later plumages. The bill of immature also is darker in color than in adults, although it is not black.

Bare Parts

The following color notes refer to adult nominate guatemalensis, and are from Wetmore (1968): Iris light cream-buff. Bill ivory yellow. Tarsi dull greenish gray.


Length: 35.5-38 cm (Howell and Webb 1995)

Wing length (chord) (Short 1982): 172-208 mm

Mass (data from Short 1982): 205-244 g in nominate guatemalensis; 263-282 g in regius


No information.

Geographic Variation

Three subspecies of Pale-billed Woodpecker currently are recognized (Short 1982, Winkler and Christie 2002), which differ slightly in size and in plumage color.

Nominate guatimalensis (Hartlaub 1844) - southern Mexico, from Veracruz and from eastern Oaxaca (east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), south to western Panama in western Bocas del Toro and western Chiriquí (Short 1982, Binford 1989, Ridgely and Gwynne 1989).

nelsoni (Ridgway 1911) - western Mexico, from Sonora south to Oaxaca (Miller et al. 1957, Binford 1989, Russell xxxx). Averages slightly smaller in size than guatimalensis. Also, the plumage is browner (less black), although the difference may be due in part to fading, from greater exposure to the sun in more xeric environments; the color of the underwing coverts and of the pale markings on the back is whiter (less buffy); and a tendency for barring (brown and black) on the lower back and rump (Short 1982). This barring on the upperparts is more prevalent in the northern part of the range, on which basis the population in Sonora and Sinaloa earlier was recognized as a separate subspecies, dorsofasciatus; but this barring is a character that appears, with varying levels of frequency, in all populations of the species.

regius Reichenbach 1854 - eastern Mexico, from Tamaulipas south to Veracruz. Averages larger than guatimalensis.



Short (1982) regarded the Pale-billed Woodpecker as forming a superspecies with the Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucos) and the Guayaquil Woodpecker (Campephilus gayaquilensis). All three are lowland species whose distributions are allopatric or parapatric.

Fleischer et al. (2006) reported the first phylogeny for the genus Campephilus, based on mitochondrial DNA sequence data. This survey (which omitted two species, Robust Woodpecker Campephilus robustus and Magellanic Woodpecker Campephilus magellanicus) places Pale-billed Woodpecker in a clade with three other species of Campephilus. Campephilus melanoleucos and C. gayaquilensis are identified as sister species, and Pale-billed Woodpecker is sister to that pair. The basal member of the clade is the Powerful Woodpecker (Campephilus pollens), which is Andean.

Recommended Citation

Schulenberg, Thomas S.. 2009. Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: