When I think about woodpeckers, I mentally picture black-and-white birds with perhaps some red or yellow splashed about somewhere. Lewis’s woodpecker, honestly, doesn’t look like it should be a woodpecker at all. It looks like it should be a tropical species with its pink and red colors, almost reminiscent of a swallow on steroids. As a biologist, I’m always fascinated by birds that seem like oddballs in comparison to other closely-related species – what’s going on with this strange-looking interloper? It says ‘woodpecker’ in its name, but how woodpecker-y can it really be?
Bottom Line Up Front
Lewis’s woodpecker is a woodpecker that doesn’t act like one: it catches insects in flight, perches in open habitat, and has the pink and red colours of a tropical bird. It is Threatened in Canada, and its population is decreasing throughout its range due to human-caused habitat changes.
Lewis’s woodpecker is in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Aves, Order Piciformes, Family Picidae, Tribe Melanerpini, and Genus Melanerpes.
The genus Melanerpes has 24 species, which contain the more colorful woodpeckers. The genus name comes from the Ancient Greek melas meaning ‘black’ and herpēs meaning ‘creeper’.
This species was first described in 1811 by Alexander Wilson. The specimens he saw were collected in 1803-1806 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and Wilson named the woodpecker after Lewis. There are no subspecies.
How to Identify a Lewis’s Woodpecker
This is one of the larger woodpeckers, at 26-28 cm long and weighing 88-139 g.
It has a gray collar, blending into a pink then reddish belly. The wings, back, and tail are green in sunlight but look black without. The head is black with dark red sides. Males are slightly brighter than females, and juveniles are darker and have more subdued colors than adults. There’s no other bird that looks like these!
Where Does a Lewis’s Woodpecker Live: Habitat
Lewis’s woodpecker prefers pine woodlands, and their distribution pretty much follows that of the Ponderosa pine. It is a species of open habitat, in contrast with other woodpecker species. Lewis’s woodpecker still requires mature and dead trees, both as perches and as nest sites. They also use oak woodlands, burned forests, and cottonwood forests, but because of their different diet compared with burned forest specialists like black-backed woodpeckers, they will occupy burned forests for many years post-fire. Since they also eat berries and flying insects, they require a habitat with herbaceous and brushy plants as well to produce their food.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
Lewis’s woodpecker will still use a typical woodpecker feeding strategy by removing dead bark with their strong bill, but do not excavate holes into trees or branches; instead, they mainly get their food from a variety of other methods, including gleaning insects off trunks, eating flying insects and insects on the ground, consuming berries, nuts, and fruit, and eating seeds from flat birdfeeders. They will store nuts and seeds, such as acorns and corn kernels, in holes in trees for lean times during the winter. In fact, one bird reportedly stored at least 10,000 kernels of corn in four desiccated telephone poles.
Few woodpeckers catch insects in flight (a behavior called ‘hawking’), and yet Lewis’s woodpecker has figured out ways to do it. They spend more time flapping and flying slower than would be expected for their body size, which has allowed them to pursue insects by gliding.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Breeding
These woodpeckers likely use vocal displays more than visual displays to attract mates. Males give both a ‘churr’ call and a ‘chatter’ call during courtship. Drumming, the predominant territory/courtship sound in most woodpeckers, is a low-intensity sound in Lewis’s woodpeckers, but does also seem to be made by males during courtship. There is some evidence of mate fidelity for a few years but it has not been well studied.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Nesting
They excavate a cavity in a dead branch, but they are relatively weak excavators, and so generally enlarge an existing cavity or use the cavities of other species. When cavities are newly made, they require well-decayed wood. It is unclear whether one sex does most of the enlarging of the hole, as different studies have found it was either males or females. There is evidence of nest-site fidelity (which may get confounded with mate fidelity – it’s unclear whether the woodpeckers are choosing to come back to the nest site, or the mate), and nests will be reused in subsequent years.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Eggs
The female lays 5-9 eggs (usually 5-7) in mid-April-June, which are plain white in coloration. Both sexes incubate, with males doing it more often at night and both sexes doing it during the day; it’s unclear why males are the ones doing the nocturnal shift. Incubation lasts 12-16 days, chicks are fed mainly insects by both parents, and the young fledge in 28-34 days.
Lewis’s woodpeckers display some interesting behaviors during chick rearing. They have also been reported to temporarily store insects when feeding nestlings, caching them in crevices until needed, though those stored food items are at risk of being stolen by other birds. In yet another perhaps unexpected behaviour, Lewis’s woodpeckers will kill passerine nestlings and feed them to their own chicks.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Population
This species has a somewhat restricted range in the west of the United States, extending into British Columbia during the breeding season. They do migrate in some parts of their range though they are not long-distance migrants, with migration and year-round locations sandwiched between breeding locations (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado) and wintering locations (California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico). They rarely occur in Mexico and have appeared in Saskatchewan, with additional sightings east of their range. They can form small groups in the fall and winter as they track food sources such as seeds and nuts. Their population is decreasing.
Is the Lewis’s Woodpecker Endangered?
In parts of their range, yes. In Canada, they only occur in the southern interior of British Columbia; they used to occur in the Georgia Depression in BC, but are extirpated (locally extinct) from that area. They were listed as Special Concern in 1999, which was re-confirmed in 2001, but they were reclassified as Threatened by COSEWIC in 2010. There are only an estimated 630-920 mature individuals in Canada. They are on a watch list for being at risk of extinction, have declined by 48% between 1968-2019, and have also been extirpated from Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades. However, they are listed on the IUCN Red List as Least Concern.
The main threats are human-caused habitat degradation, namely logging which removes nesting trees (including post-fire salvage logging), and fire suppression which reduces open habitat. Additional possible concerns are nest site competition with European starlings (though other studies found no effect), vehicle collisions, and high nest predation from predators occupying nearby agricultural habitats.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Habits
If you’ve ever seen a woodpecker in flight, you probably know they typically have an undulating flight pattern. Lewis’s woodpecker also does not conform to usually woodpecker traits in this regard – their flight is much more like a crow, straight and even, an adaptation that helps them to catch insects in mid-air.
They are also fairly quiet compared with other woodpeckers, doing less drumming overall. However, they use displays to defend their winter acorn/nut stores from other birds, and so are not timid.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Predators
Red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and golden eagles are all predators of Lewis’s woodpecker. Weasels and squirrels will predate woodpecker nests, and American kestrels take fledglings.
Lewis’s Woodpecker Lifespan
Answer: Yes, a couple! They have been called the ‘crow woodpecker’, presumably because their flight resembles a crow, and the ‘black woodpecker’, presumably because their feathers look dark in shadow. In fact, Lewis himself wrote in 1805, “I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today… it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deal like the jay bird” (Thwaites 1905). Another name bestowed by children is ‘floating dish-rag’ but the origin of that term is rather obscure.
Answer: Meriwether Lewis was the commander of the expedition that was charged with exploring and mapping the newly acquired western portion of the country. The expedition started May 14 1804 and they returned Sept 26 1806.
Answer: Though Lewis’s woodpecker behaves and even looks different, they are still definitely woodpeckers. Older phylogenies (evolutionary relationships) among species were based on what people could see and measure, so relied mainly on morphology (body traits). Now most phylogenies are made using genetic tools, and Lewis’s woodpeckers are definitely still woodpeckers – they have just diverged in many traits to reduce competition with other species.
This is a woodpecker with many very un-woodpecker like traits – an aerial forager that stores insects, eats baby birds, has a gliding flight, perches upright in open habitat, and is quiet – never mind that its colours are unlike any other woodpecker. Unique species are an important part of the biodiversity of our planet, and as an evolutionary biologist, I find the oddballs that have clearly diverged from other species so interesting. Though we can never go back millennia to see the forces that drove these evolutionary changes, we can learn about – and admire – the products of selection that now grace our landscape.
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