- Photo: Ned Harris
They excavate a cavity usually in the middle third of the saguaro.
Gila Woodpeckers are medium size woodpeckers (9 inches long with a wing span of 16 inches) with a soft brown head and underparts. They have black and white horizontal bars on the back, wings and tail. The male has a red spot on the top of his head. They have a long, straight chisel-like bill. They use their stiff tail feathers to prop against a vertical perch. The name is pronounced “Hee-la” and they were named for the Gila River, along which the bird was discovered.
Gilas are the principal architects of the “bird condominiums” found in many of the saguaros in Sabino. They excavate a cavity, usually in the middle 1/3 of the saguaro, they nest in it for one or more breeding seasons, and then move on. The nest cavities are subsequently reused by at least 10 other bird species including American Kestrels, Screech Owls, Elf Owls, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Purple Martins. The fleshy tissue exposed when the woodpeckers drill into saguaros secretes a fluid that hardens to create a scabrous lining on the inside of the cactus cavity. These hard, tubular shells are often found on the desert floor near fallen saguaros and are known as saguaro boots.
Unlike many other woodpeckers, Gilas do not excavate for food but merely probe along the trunk or branches searching visually for insects. In late spring, when the saguaros are in bloom, Gilas will feast on pollen and search for insects in the flowers. Some will have so much pollen accumulate on their bills and faces that they resemble White-headed Woodpeckers. Later in the season they feed on the saguaro fruit, turning their bills and faces a deep purple. Gilas readily come to humming bird feeders, suet feeders and sliced citrus.
Their voice is a loud, harsh yip-yip-yip or churrr. Watch them fly off after you have had a good look and get used to recognizing their distinctive undulating flight pattern.
Gilas are year round residents of Sabino Canyon.