Saturday, March 14, 2009

Woodpecker Series Part IV - Lewis's Woodpecker

The Lewis's Woodpecker, Melanerpes lewis, is the medium-sized bird, named for Meriwether Lewis, one of the first men who surveyed, mapped and explored the areas bought by the United States of America during the Louisiana Purchase.

Lewis described the new bird he found as he camped in the vicinity of modern Kamiah, Idaho, on the Clearwater River:
"The Black woodpecker which I have frequently mentioned and which is found in most parts of the roky Mountains as well as the Western and S. W. Mountains, I had never an opportunity of examining untill a few days since when we killed and preserved several of them. This bird is about the size of the lark woodpecker or the turtle dove, tho' it's wings are longer than either of those birds.

The beak is black, one inch long, reather wide at the base, somewhat curved, and sharply pointed; the chaps are of equal length. Around the base of the beak including the eye and a small part of the throat is of a fine crimson red. The neck and as low as the croop in front is of an iron grey. The belly and breast is a curious mixture of white and blood red which has much the appearance of having been artificially painted or stained of that colour. The red reather predominates.

The top of the head back, sides, upper surface of the wings and tail are black, with a glossey tint of green in a certain exposure to the light. The under side of the wings and tail are of a sooty black. It has ten feathers in the tail, sharply pointed, and those in the centre reather longest, being 2-1/2 inches in length. The tongue is barbed, pointed, and of an elastic cartelaginous substance. The eye is moderately large, puple black and iris of a dark yellowish brown.

This bird in it's actions when flying resembles the small redheaded woodpecker common to the Atlantic states; its note also somewhat resembles that bird. The pointed tail seems to assist it in seting with more eas or retaining its resting position against the perpendicular side of a tree. The legs and feet are black and covered with wide imbricated [overlapping] scales. It has four toes on each foot of which two are in rear and two in front; the nails are much curved long and remarkably keen or sharply pointed. It feeds on bugs worms and a variety of insects.

Personally, I find this bird stunning and feel blessed that they congrigate and nest in the big cottonwoods by the nearby river. For all the spelling errors (found by my spellchecker, not by me!) I throughly concur with this rather poetic discription. Lewis’s Woodpecker is a uniquely dark-colored woodpecker with long wings and tail. Its slow wing-beat-and-glide, while chasing flying insects, results in a complex flight pattern. Lewis's is the common woodpecker of mountain ranchlands, and some ranchers call it the "Crow Woodpecker" because of its dark color, large size, and slow flight. Meriwether Lewis also mentioned that his woodpecker "flys a good deal like the jay bird," but after more observations of flight and vocalization, later said the bird reminded him of the Red-headed Woodpecker of Virginia.

This is one of the largest American Woodpecker (some ten-inches long) with blackish-green upperparts; a prominent silvery-gray collar and upper breast, a dark red face with pinkish or salmon-red lower breast and belly. Though males are slightly larger, individuals cannot be sexed reliably without examination in the hand. Juvenile lacks red face and collar, and has less red on belly. The bird is generally silent in flight.

It’s a shame that, before the field guides by Roger Tory Peterson…the only way to ‘discover’ a bird was to shoot and then handle it. Our current Christmas Bird Count has its roots in the Christmas Day practice of contests involving who could shoot the greatest number of birds! As a matter of fact, even the concept of The Big Year, a year-long bird count, has it’s roots in Audubon’s great birding adventure where his quest was to paint a life-size portrait of every bird in the New World.

Unfortunately, to paint a bird required heavy sacrifice; to complete a single drawing, Audubon had to shoot and kill whole flocks of birds just to select the one or two birds with the best plumage. He then treaded wire into the carcasses and posed them as if they were still alive and painted watercolors that were big, bold and remarkably animated. While he was a sharpshooter and hunter, Audubon abhored the thought of extirpation. He warned about killing just because one could; like buffalo and the great auk, creatures were on the verge of disappearing forever. When Audubon died, a student of his wife’s, also agast at senseless wildlife killings, created the first bird preservaton group and named it in honor of Mr. Audubon. Happily, that practice of shooting birds on Christmas Day came to an end and counting, instead, became the Annual Contest.

Lewis's Woodpeckers enjoy a close association with open-canopy forests like ponderosa pine, riparian woodlands dominated by cottonwood, and burned pine forests. However, this has made the woodpecker susceptible to habitat loss and degradation and such areas disappear from our lands. As a result, the species may have experienced up to a 60% population reduction in less than the last fifty years.

This woodpecker can be particularly aggressive in defending winter food-stores. Territoriality can be intra- and interspecific. This can occur in summer, in defense of area in vicinity of nest cavity, as well as in late fall and winter in defense of acorn or nut stores.

While they generally appear to dominate interaction with the European Starling, the population of Lewis's Woodpeckers has been reduced by the arrival of starlings, which compete for nest sites. They were formerly fairly common in western areas, in burned forests and in open prairies with scattered trees, but with development and fire suppression, along with the invasion of starlings, they have been extirpated as a breeding species from some areas. I see evidence of this in the nearby woods where I see starlings as well as the woodpeckers. Thus far, they seem to be hanging in there, at least in my neighborhood.

There is little data, but all reported predators of this woodpecker are birds, with successful predation by Red-tailed Hawk and the American Kestrel, which is reported to prey heavily on juveniles soon after young leave nest. In Utah, one took half a single brood as fledglings as they climbed up nest tree for the very first time. During a winter in Colorado, a lucky Lewis’s was witinessed surving attack by both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, which also prey upon this woodpecker.


As stated, this is a large, unusual-looking woodpecker with dark iridescent greenish-black back, wings and tail with rather pink undersides and a gray upper breast and collar with a red face rimmed in black which covers the head. Keep in mind, iridescent feather color is dependent upon light; colors can appear to be quite different, even as a bird moves about. I have observed the bird appearing too dark, nearly black, to be this woodpecker…only to have it move about a branch and suddenly showing me it’s beautiful greens and reds. Bill Schmoker discuses this phenomenon here.

The wings are much broader than those of other woodpeckers, it flies at a much more sluggish pace with slow, but even flaps similar to those of a crow…just as its namesake originally observed. In flight they can often be mistaken for crows.

Juveniles, up to several months from fledgling, also have dark iridecent upper parts, but are mottled brown beneath with dark-brown heads and without the gray collar or red face.

  • Medium-sized woodpecker
  • Head, back, wings and tail greenish-black
  • Silver-gray collar and chest
  • Dark red face
  • Belly pinkish or salmon red
  • Wings and tail all dark greenish-black, without white spots or patches
  • Size: 10-11 inches
  • Wingspan: 19-20 inches
  • Weight: 3.11-4.87 ounces

Lewis’s Woodpeckers prefer open forests of pine or cottonwood, west of the Great Plains, with brushy understoriees, groundcover and snags. Ponderosa forests are preferred at higher elevations, with riparian woodlands dominated by cottonwoods in lower elevations. This bird especially enjoys burned pine forests where it appears more productive for the woodpeckers. Winter sites are usually oak forests or commercial orchards.

Like all other woodpeckers, it requires snags (standing, dead or partly dead trees) for nesting, although it is not anatomically specialized for excavating in wood and the trees it selects for nesting are generally well decayed.

Like many semi-migratory birds, within the northern portions of its breeding range, most individuals move south, but generally it is present throughout the year in many portions of its breeding range. In south-east Colorado, about half the breeding birds were resident; other half migrated to western Colorado. Migratory movements to areas outside of breeding range probably occur annually but vary considerably in magnitude from year to year.


This woodpecker is opportunistic in its feeding habits, eating mostly insects in summer but switching in winter to acorns and other nuts, which it often stores in bark crevices for later consumption. Diet varies with seasonal abundance of food items; primarily free-living (not wood-boring) insects, acorns or other nuts, and fruit. The woodpecker feeds in the air, on tree trunks and branches, in bushes, and on ground. It uses snags, telephone poles, fence posts, and other locations with open view for perches, from which it engages in hawking for insects. It prefers insects older than larval stage, principally ants, bees, wasps, beetles and grasshoppers. Vegetable food includes acorns and cultivated nuts such as almonds, various species of cultivated and wild succulent fruit, including apples, cherries, and peaches, serviceberry, hawthorn, dogwood, elderberry, and sumac. Also corn, (but not other cultivated grains), and wild seeds.

Lewis's Woodpecker seldom excavates wood for boring insects; instead gleaning insects from tree surfaces, starting at base of tree or near trunk and working up or out to smaller branches. It uses visual cues during gleaning rather than auditory cues; or…most commonly, it flycatches. Unusually, for a woodpecker, this one also engages in "nonspecific" or "direct" long-duration foraging flights, sometimes amid swallows and swifts over fields and open water, catching insects with its beak. This species has large gape relative to that of other woodpeckers, a giveaway to flycatching behavior.

Aditionally it harvests acorn, shells it, generally breaks mast into pieces, and stores pieces (or whole meat if unbroken) in a natural crack or cavity. Several woodpeckers may use the same tree for storage, but individuals protect their own cache. Diet varies by season; flying insects make up most of the Lewis's Woodpecker's spring and summer diet. In fall and winter they feed principally on acorns, other nuts, seeds, and fruits.


Unlike most woodpeckers, Lewis's does not peck at wood for food and is seen more often on top of a fence post than clinging to it vertically. As with the Acorn Woodpecker, its main method of getting food is catching flying insects; both species also store acorns and other nuts for winter, and sometimes damage fruit orchards. Unlike other American woodpeckers, it enjoys sitting in the open as opposed to sitting in heavy tree cover.

Generally, this bird is quiet and seldom drums except a bit during breeding season.


Lewis's Woodpecker: Breeds from southern British Columbia and Alberta south to central California, northern Arizona, and northern New Mexico. It spends winters from southern British Columbia and Oregon to Colorado and south to northern Mexico. Open pine-oak woodlands, oak, or cottonwood groves in grasslands, and ponderosa pine country are preferred habitats, especially for breeding. It begins nesting in mid-spring, earliest in the southern and latest in the northern part of its range. Pairs appear to be monogamous and may re-form each year on the same territory, which the male defends with calls, like the rapid "churr." A weak roll followed by several taps, drumming is done only in courtship. A raised wing display flashes the male's pink underparts, to attract his mate and to warn intruders. Nesting is sometimes colonial.

It excavates soft, dead tree trunks and large branches, usually pine or cottonwood, making holes often in as much as two feet deep between chest high and extreme heights. This woodpecker will accept nest boxes similar to those used for the Flicker, Pigmy Owl, Saw-Whet Owl, and Grackle.

The nest is constructed mainly by the male, though both participate; it is lined with wood chips. The female will lay six to eight (more or less) eggs, which are plain white in coloration. Incubation is done by both sexes – the female sitting during the day and the male sitting at night – and lasts approximately 12 days, after which the young will hatch. Naked, blind, and unable to regulate their own temperature, the hatchlings require constant care. The young leave the nest 4 to 5 weeks after hatching. After another week or so of feeding, the family joins flocks of other woodpeckers until winter, when individuals and pairs maintain their own food supplies.

One recent study indicates this species will usurp active cavity nests of Hairy Woodpecker and Western Bluebird. Old nest holes may be used as roosts during all seasons of year.

Young exit nest and explore around nest tree two to three days before leaving nest tree, but do not reenter nest hole. The largest bird (most often the first to hatch) is first to leave, some young may remain in nest for up to two days after first departs. As stated, there can be heavy predation by American Kestrel on recently fledged juveniles

Juveniles remain near nest site for at least ten days. They beg for and receive food from adults during this time. Young follow adults and give begging calls when adults approach with food. In some broods, adults separated after young fledged; each adult took part of brood.

The plumage of youngsters is similar to adult plumage but duller; lacking silver on collar and upper breast, and with only traces of red on face, and feathers of hindneck can have white subterminal spots not present in adult. There may be white spots on tips of outer secondaries and outer primaries. Considerable variation apparent in plumage coloration among juveniles in postbreeding flocks: some individuals are entirely dusky gray and black, others have limited red on facial region, pinkish red on breast, and silvery gray collar.

Interesting Facts

This species is poorly monitored in many parts of its range, but exhibits a significant long-term decline overall. Populations may have declined by as much as
50% since 1966.

The Lewis's Woodpecker seldom, if ever, excavates wood for boring insects. Instead, it gleans insects from the tree surface, or most commonly, flycatches. It spends long periods of time watching for flying insects from the top of a pole or dead tree, and then flies out to catch them in flight; a behavior called ‘hawking’.

A group of woodpeckers has many collective nouns, including a "descent", "drumming", and "gatling" of woodpeckers.


This bird is quiet compared to other woodpeckers, with varied calls that are mainly soft. Sounds include a shrill ‘jeeer’ and chattering; with a squirrel-like series of ‘jee’ notes. Also: "chee-up", "ick-ick-ick" and a series of "churs". Listen to songs of this species here.


The American Natural History by William Temple Hornaday
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
by David Allen Sibley
Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd
A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson
The Big Year – A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
by Mark Obmascik

Photos, as noted, from popular Colorado photographer Bill Schmoker
all others from Wikipedia.

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