Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
In flight, Lewis’s woodpeckers resemble crows, with their dark plumage and slow wingbeats.
At close range, their markings make them easy to identify, with a greenish-black head, back, wings, and tail, a silvery-white collar that extends into a whitish-gray breast flecked with red, which becomes more heavily tinged with pinkish-red towards the belly. They have dark red facial markings that extend from the bill, across the cheeks to the eye.
Female Lewis’s woodpeckers are identical in markings and coloring to males, and although males are usually marginally larger than females, there is no reliable way of telling sexes apart by sight alone.
Juvenile Lewis’s woodpeckers do not have the white collar or red facial plumage of adults and their bellies may lack the pink tinge seen in mature birds. By late fall, they become harder to distinguish from older birds.
Lewis’s woodpecker perched on the branch of a Ponderosa Pine
A relatively large woodpecker species, Lewis’s woodpeckers are slightly smaller than northern flickers. Males are usually slightly larger than females in length, weight and wingspan.
Lewis’s woodpecker feeding on seeds in a garden
Compared to other woodpecker species, Lewis’s woodpeckers are less vocal and do not engage in as much drumming. Churring and chattering calls are used for contact, while a single squeaky ‘yick’ sound is heard as a distress signal.
Lewis’s woodpecker perched on the trunk of a tree
Rather than drilling into tree trunks and dead wood for wood-boring insects, Lewis’s woodpeckers mainly catch their prey in flight or glean bugs from the surface of leaves and bark.
Insect prey includes ants, bees, wasps, beetles, and grasshoppers. Acorns, nuts, and other fruits are also important to their diet.
Lewis’s woodpeckers may visit backyard feeders, particularly flat tray-style feeders, where they may display aggression towards other species that attempt to share the food source.
Acorns and nuts are shelled and stored in crevices in trees, and serve as a back-up food source during the winter and the breeding season when insect supplies may not be sufficient to feed themselves or their young.
Young Lewis’s woodpeckers are fed on an initial diet of insects, with beetles, ants, and termites the leading prey. Small pieces of acorn and other nuts are brought to nestlings as supplementary food.
Lewis’s woodpecker perched on a tree stump feeding
Preferred breeding habitats for a Lewis’s woodpecker include forests, particularly those with ponderosa pine and cottonwood trees, interspersed with low-level bushy ground vegetation, offering cover and foraging opportunities. Dead or dying trees are necessary for nest cavities, and rich insect life is also vital.
In the non-breeding season, oak woodlands and orchards provide ideal foraging and roosting grounds, and dead woody trees or posts are used as storage posts for grains, nuts and acorns.
The main distribution range of a Lewis’s woodpecker covers the west-central United States, west of the Great Plains. In summer, the range expands as far south as the US border with Mexico and in summer as far north as Canada.
Year-round populations of Lewis’s woodpeckers are concentrated in Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Breeding takes place in summer in Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Utah as well as across the Canadian border in British Columbia. Additional winter territories are found in southern California, southern Nevada, southern Arizona, and southern New Mexico.
The global population of Lewis’s woodpeckers is estimated by the American Bird Conservancy to be around 130,000 individuals. Not as prevalent or widespread as many other woodpeckers species in North America, the Lewis’s woodpecker would count as a fairly rare sighting, although in the breeding season, opportunities for sightings increase with adults performing regular insect-catching flights to keep on top of the feeding demands of their hungry nestlings.
Open ponderosa pine savanna landscapes in north-central Oregon, in the region around Mount Hood, offer good opportunities for sightings, where a corridor of protected land is a key stronghold for the species.
Breeding of Lewis’s woodpeckers in Canada is limited to regions of south-eastern British Columbia, and extends into the far southwest corner of Alberta, although they are considered a rare presence in these areas.
Lewis’s woodpecker in natural habitat
Only sketchy data is available for the lifespan and first breeding age of Lewis’s woodpeckers, due to the absence of records of banded individual birds being recaptured at a later date. A maximum average lifespan of around 10 years is assumed.
Hawks appear to be the most common predators of Lewis’s woodpeckers, with sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks noted to prey on fledglings. Kestrels and ravens are also a threat, particularly to young birds, while weasels are known to target eggs and nestlings.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are included in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which offers protection to the species against being killed, injured, or captured for sale. Their nests, young, and eggs are also protected under this legislation. In Canada, Lewis’s woodpeckers are included for protection by the Species at Risk Act.
Despite witnessing small population declines in the last 40 years, Lewis’s woodpeckers are rated as a species of least concern globally. In Canada, declines of up to 82 percent have been observed from 1966 to 2015, and less than 1000 individuals are now present in the country, leading to the species being registered as ‘threatened’.
Lewis’s woodpecker with a beak full of food
Like all woodpecker species, Lewis’s woodpeckers are cavity nesters and lay their eggs in hollowed-out chambers in dead or rotting tree trunks. Unlike many other species, they rarely excavate their own chambers, choosing instead to reuse abandoned holes made by other birds, or finding naturally formed hollows in cracks and crevices in dead wood.
No lining material is added to the nest chambers, apart from a layer of wood chips, often up to 8 cm (3 in) deep.
Eggs are laid between late April and June, with the peak laying period in May and early June. Incubation lasts for 12 to 16 days, and is shared between the sexes: males incubate overnight, while daytime shifts alternate between the pair. Hatchlings are fed in the nest by both parents and are ready to fledge between 28 and 34 days.
Lewis’s woodpecker eggs vary in shape and can be spherical, oval, or elliptical. They are plain white, measuring 26 mm by 20 mm (1 in by 0.8 in). A typical clutch contains 3 to 7 eggs, with 4 to 6 most common.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are assumed to be monogamous during the breeding season, with some evidence of pair bonds lasting for four consecutive seasons.
Lewis’s woodpecker at nest cavity with food for its young
Known to be aggressive and particularly possessive over access to their food stores, Lewis’s woodpeckers use posturing, chattering calls, and confrontational flight to drive off challengers. These confrontations reach a peak in winter months, with other woodpecker species attempting to raid stores of acorns that have been cached by Lewis’s woodpeckers earlier in the year.
Roosting cavities in trees are used overnight, offering shelter and safety from attacks by predators. Old cavities drilled out by other species and naturally occurring crevices are both used by single Lewis’s woodpeckers.
Lewis’s woodpecker searching for food
Where migration does occur, Lewis’s woodpeckers only disperse short distances from their breeding grounds, with many remaining resident in their territories all year round. Breeding grounds to the north of their range, in southern Canada and the northeastern reaches of their US range, are vacated once the young have fully fledged, and a temporary shift southwards, as far as the border with Mexico, follows.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are only found in the US and a small local area of British Columbia across the Canadian border. Some small-scale seasonal movement across the Mexican border may also occur.
Lewis’s Woodpecker in-flight
Under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Lewis’s woodpeckers are protected from being killed, injured, or traded for sale in the United States. It is also unlawful to destroy or damage a nest site or to take eggs or young from the wild.
Lewis’s woodpeckers seek dead or decaying trees in which to nest, so leaving any dying tree to rot naturally will increase the chances of the arrival of these birds. Try not to get your hopes up, as they rarely visit backyard feeders, but may occasionally turn up and feast on suet.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are named after American explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with William Clark was the first to describe the species during the 1805 expedition to explore lands acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson named the bird ‘Lewis’s woodpecker’ in 1811.
The first record of an observation of a bird thought to be the Lewis’s woodpecker during the Lewis and Clark expedition was by Meriwether Lewis on 20 July 1805. Notes from the expedition recorded his experience in the following words: “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”.
26cm to 28cm
49cm to 52cm
88g to 139g
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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