White Pileated Woodpecker Documented in the Big Woods

February 22, 2006

Authors: Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Martjan Lammertink, Keith Brady, Sonny Bass, and Utami Setiorini

Photo: Martjan Lammertink,
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology


In the latest development in the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a white Pileated Woodpecker was discovered in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. Observed during February 7-13, 2006, this striking individual is mostly white with a red crest and red malar stripe, indicating that it is a male.

This finding is of interest because some have suggested that the bird filmed on video by David Luneau in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 2004 is not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but rather a Pileated Woodpecker with an unusual amount of white on its wings. Documentation of this nearly all-white Pileated Woodpecker, as well as a second Pileated Woodpecker with an unusually large amount of white on its primaries, shows that these striking birds could not have been mistaken for ivory-bills. 

Photo: Martjan Lammertink,
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The search crew easily identified the white woodpecker as a Pileated Woodpecker. It behaved and sounded like a typical Pileated Woodpecker and moved in a loose association with two normally plumaged Pileated Woodpeckers, a male and a female.

The white woodpecker was first seen on February 7, 2006, by Keith Brady during a two-week volunteer assignment with the crew of Tom Snetsinger. Video documentation of the bird was obtained by Sonny Bass (also a volunteer) on February 8 and by Utami Setiorini on February 13, and stills were made by Martjan Lammertink on February 13. Upon close inspection, the woodpecker has a few small areas of darker feathers visible on the face, hind-neck, and wing coverts (see photos above and at right).

All encounters with this bird have been in a bottomland hardwood area of 6 ha (15 acres), where the bird was repeatedly relocated without difficulty. On February 13, during four hours of observation, the bird stayed within the 6-ha area, which evidently is the core of an established home range area.

Leucism and albinism in Pileated Woodpeckers and other birds

Photo: Charles Brandt,
British Columbia, 1996
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Leucism, referred to by some authors as partial albinism, is infrequently but regularly occurring in wild bird populations and results from a reduction or absence of melanin, a dark brown to blackish pigment, in the feathers. It is not unusual for such birds to retain other feather pigments, such as reddish carotenoids, resulting in unusually patterned plumage such as in the recently found Pileated Woodpecker.

We have accumulated numerous photos of albino or leucistic birds, mainly from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's citizen-science participants. The photos include many examples of mostly white birds with patches of red, orange or yellow feathers (e.g., Red-breasted Sapsucker photo, left). There are other recent examples of leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers that resemble the bird we have documented. These include an individual described near Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2005, and a bird seen in Heber Springs, Arkansas, in January 2006 (Dan Scheiman personal communication).

For a discussion of ornithological definitions of leucism and albinism, click here.

Implications for the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Photo: Martjan Lammertink,
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2006

Discussions about the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas have included the possibility that leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers could account for the sight records and perhaps even the bird in David Luneau’s video. In our view, the presence of a mostly white Pileated Woodpecker in the Big Woods is immaterial to the evidence supporting the rediscovery of the ivory-bill.

The bird in question did not confuse the searchers and does not at all resemble the strikingly white-and-black-patterned bird in the Luneau video or birds that were identified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by experienced observers. In fact, despite persistent rumors to the contrary (Jackson 2006), we are still unaware of any photographs or specimens of a truly “piebald” Pileated Woodpecker that could potentially be confused with an ivory-bill.

A possible exception is a bird observed and described by Noel Snyder in Florida that had cream-colored white triangles on its wings with two black feathers mixed in with the cream-colored secondaries on the left wing. However, Snyder notes that the bird lacked the large white bill characteristic of the ivory-bill (Snyder 2004). Documented records from elsewhere in the pileated’s range suggest that leucism in the species seems to result in mostly white individuals resembling the recently discovered white woodpecker.  

The white bird reported here lives in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 km south of the location where the Luneau video was filmed in April, 2004. In the area of the Luneau video and Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings we have never seen a leucistic Pileated Woodpecker. Fitzpatrick et al. (2005) argued that if such an aberrant Pileated Woodpecker was present there, it should be seen and re-found without difficulty. This notion was reinforced by transect surveys in Bayou de View in April 2005 that documented high Pileated Woodpecker densities of 9 to 16 individuals per 100 ha (= 1.00 square kilometer), indicating that home ranges must be very small (Setiorini et al. 2005). In contrast, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have very large home ranges of 1,600 ha or more and are notoriously difficult to find (Tanner 1942).

Photo: Martjan Lammertink,
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

That the white Pileated Woodpecker in White River National Wildlife Refuge interacts normally with other Pileated Woodpeckers and has been found in the same 6-ha area several times adds to our confidence that any leucistic Pileated Woodpecker present in the vicinity of our ivory-bill sightings and video in spring 2004 would be regularly seen and heard in the same area, as this area has been intensively monitored almost continuously since March 2004.

Reports of other odd-plumaged Pileated Woodpeckers with “extra white” in the Cache/White River study area have persisted since our announcement of the rediscovery in April 2005. The original source of these reports is James Bednarz, an ornithologist at Arkansas State University and a member of the original Big Woods Conservation Partnership. The following is an excerpt from Dr. Bednarz’s account of these observations:

"Concerning a quote attributed to me about the existence of leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers--that is a bit of a spin on some observations that I did make last spring.What I did state to several individuals is that I made three separate sightings on different days of a Pileated Woodpecker that had an abnormal amount of white on the dorsal part of the wing when folded in the Bayou de View study area.

I do not know if this was one woodpecker that I just happened to observe three times or three different birds. Given the number of Pileated Woodpeckers (typically 10-20 per search day) I saw at Bayou de View last year, it seems unlikely it was the same bird.

I would not describe this woodpecker(s) as leucistic. Rather, it exhibited a conspicuous, relatively large patch of white on the upper secondaries that I estimated was ca. 2 x 2 cm approximately in a square shape--the white patch was completely surrounded by a margin of black.The photo by David Luneau of a Pileated Woodpecker with a relatively large patch of white on the dorsal part of the wing was similar to the bird(s) that I observed (see photo below) except that the white patch that I saw appeared more square-like in shape.This white patch could easily be caused by the loss of secondary coverts that exposed the normal white at the base of the secondaries in a Pileated Woodpecker.I could not tell from my look.Also, I am not sure that the white patch was visible on both sides of the bird.”

© David Luneau, 2006

Based on an examination of David Luneau’s photographs of an oddly plumaged Pileated Woodpecker, we concur that the “extra white” is caused by partial absence of the bird’s greater secondary coverts on one wing, thereby revealing more of the white bases of the outer secondaries and inner primaries than is typical of a full-feathered individual. This condition presumably is a temporary feature of a bird in molt. Pileated Woodpeckers showing this pattern do not possess more white on their wings than normal.  In short, despite our concerted efforts to find any, we have no evidence of leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers in this region of the Big Woods.

Finally, we reiterate that several features of the Luneau video preclude the possibility of the filmed bird being an aberrant Pileated Woodpecker: size, wing-beat frequency, flight style, and wing shape (see video analysis). Similarly, features of the sightings reported in Rosenberg et al. (2005) are not consistent with aberrant Pileated Woodpeckers, including size, body shape, wing shape, flight style, bill size, and presence of red crescent only at the end of the folded crest. 

© Tim Barksdale

We acknowledge the National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Chapter, for the loan of photographic equipment. We also acknowledge the assistance of David Luneau, Jim Bednarz, John Fitzpatrick, Kevin McGowan, Jerry Jackson, and Peter Stettenheim for discussions and help with literature.

Literature cited

Fitzpatrick, J. W., M. Lammertink, M. D. Luneau, Jr., T. W. Gallagher, B. R. Harrison, G. M. Sparling, K. V. Rosenberg, R. W. Rohrbaugh, E. C. H. Swarthout, P. H. Wrege, S. Barker Swarthout, M. S. Dantzker, R. A. Charif, T. R. Barksdale, J. V. Remsen, Jr., S. D. Simon, and D. Zollner. 2005. Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America. Science 308:1460-1462.

Jackson, J. A. 2006. Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis):
Hope, and the interfaces of science, conservation, and politics. Auk 123:

Rosenberg, K. V., R. W. Rohrbaugh, M. Lammertink. 2005. An overview of Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) sightings in eastern Arkansas in 2004-2005. North American Birds 59(2).

Setiorini, U., M. Lammertink, E. C. H. Swarthout, P. H. Wrege, and R. Rohrbaugh (2005). Woodpecker densities and dead wood volumes in the Arkansas Big Woods habitats of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Paper presented at the symposium “The ecology of large woodpeckers: history, status, and conservation,” October 31-November 3, 2005, Brinkley, Arkansas, USA.

Snyder, N. F. R. 2004. The Carolina Parakeet. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Tanner, J. T. 1942. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Audubon Research Report No. 1, National Audubon Society, New York.