By Lewis Young

Jan Wassink Photo
Jan Wassink Photo

Named for Captain Meriwether Lewis, who first scientifically described them during the 1804-1806 Lewis & Clark Expedition, Lewis’s woodpeckers are unusual in that much of the year they feed mostly by catching insects in acrobatic flight. They swoop out from a perch like a flycatcher or circle in the air like a swallow to catch insects.

The Lewis’s woodpecker may be identified by its distinctive colors, flight pattern, and behavior. Although dark overall at a distance, upon closer inspection the adults are very distinctive, with a greenish-black back and head, pinkish belly, pale gray collar and breast, and a dark red face. The wings and tail are all dark without any white patches or spots. Males and females are similar in appearance. Juveniles lack the collar and red face, and the belly may be only faintly pink.

At 10 ¾ inches long with a 21-inch wingspan, the Lewis’s woodpecker is only 1½ inch longer than the common Hairy Woodpecker but has a 6 inch greater wingspan. The long wings make deep, slow beats, resulting in a more buoyant flight than most woodpeckers and when combined with the occasional glide, the overall flight pattern and dark coloring can result in them being mistaken for a crow or jay. Unique to woodpeckers in our area, their frequent short flights from a perch to capture flying insects are another good clue to their identification. They are somewhat social and may form loose groups.

The range of this species covers much of the west, but its distribution can be patchy and inconsistent from year-to-year. The breeding range overlaps the range of Ponderosa Pine in North America, from southern British Columbia into southern New Mexico and from eastern South Dakota to the Pacific Coast. Lewis’s woodpecker winters generally in the southern half of its breeding range. The distribution of this species has been reduced, especially in western British Columbia, western Washington, and southern California, but its range has expanded into southeastern Colorado, most likely because of habitat changes that include the presence of mature cottonwoods and corn. In the Flathead Valley and northwest Montana they are occasionally found in spring and summer and rarely in fall and winter. In fact, they are rarely found anywhere in Montana during winter. Christmas Bird Count records for Montana show only a handful of records and several of them from the Bitterroot Valley. Locally, none have been reported for the Bigfork or Kalispell counts and 1 for the Eureka count.

Lewis’s woodpecker permanently inhabits the southern half or more of its breeding range, but northern populations, like in northwest Montana, begin to migrate toward winter ranges in late summer. Usually traveling in flocks of a few to 150 and always moving slowly at low altitudes (10 to 500 feet), these migrants do not appear to follow traditional routes, but rather move through areas with the best food supplies. Migrants arrive on their wintering grounds in mid-fall and depart in March or April.

Lewis’s woodpeckers breed in open forests of pine or cottonwood with ground cover, snags, and insects. Ponderosa pine forests are preferred at higher elevations, while riparian woodlands dominated by cottonwoods are preferred at lower elevations. Burned pine forests are also used and appear more productive for the woodpeckers. Winter sites are usually oak woodlands or commercial orchards and are chosen for available food storage places.
Diet varies by season and includes insects, acorns and other nuts, fruit, and cultivated corn. They capture insects from the air, the vegetation and on the ground. The Lewis’s rarely excavate trees for wood-boring insects, but often fly after ants, bees, wasps, beetles, and grasshoppers. When insects are abundant, they hide the surplus. In fall and winter, they store broken nuts and grains in crevices of bark or cracks in telephone poles or fence posts; individuals protect their own cache, though several woodpeckers may use the same tree, pole, or post for storage.

Nesting begins 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.” Drumming is done only during courtship and is described as a weak roll followed by several taps. A raised wing display flashes the male’s pink underparts to attract his mate and to warn intruders. Nesting is sometimes colonial.

The pair excavates a hole or refurbishes an old one in a large decaying tree, usually pine or cottonwood. Over a lining of wood chips, the female lays an average of 6-7 white eggs that hatch after only 12-16 days. The adults share incubation during the day but only the male incubates at night. Naked, blind, and unable to regulate their own temperature, the hatchlings require constant care. In about a month, the young leave the hole, and within a day or two, take their first flight. 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.

The population and habitat status of Lewis’s woodpecker is of concern. Based on data from the Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Counts, the population may have declined by more than half between the mid-1960’s and 2005. The Lewis’s woodpecker is on Audubon’s Watchlist, listed as “Imperiled” in British Columbia, Canada, and of “Special Concern” in several western states. A close association with open-canopy forests (ponderosa pine and cottonwoods along rivers) has made Lewis’s Woodpecker susceptible to habitat loss and degradation.

Although Lewis’s woodpeckers are not common in northwest Montana in the spring and summer, persistent searching in areas with numerous large cottonwoods near open fields or meadows can pay off with a good look at these strikingly colored birds and a chance to see their unusual flycatching behavior.