Time for another Woodpecker Wednesday! Today’s featured bird is the fascinating Lewis’s Woodpecker. The species was spotted by Meriwether Lewis while camping on the Kooskooske River in Idaho in 1806 on his famed expedition with William Clark. Lewis named this species the “Black Woodpecker”, but ornithologist Alexander Wilson later renamed this woodpecker in honor of Lewis. The Lewis’s Woodpecker is unique from other woodpecker species in many ways.
Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis)
The Lewis’s Woodpecker is North America’s only green-colored woodpecker. Males and females are sexually monochormatic . This means that the sexes are identical, but slightly differ in size. This makes figuring out a Lewis’s sex in the field extremely difficult, unless you know the male’s vocalizations. Their backs, wings, heads, and tails are a solid greenish-black, with no white patches like other woodpecker species. Their bellies are a salmon pink or red. The Lewis’s breast and collar are a silver gray, and their faces are dark red. In flight they look black and look like a small corvid (like a jay or crow). Juveniles are darker and lack the gray collar/breast and red face.
Scattered throughout mountainous regions of the America West. Winters in the Southwest and breeds (summers) in the Northwestern United States and parts of Western Canada.
Open habitats; scattered forests with large trees and numerous perches, river groves, foothills, burned forests; oak, cottonwood and ponderosa pines
Unlike other woodpeckers, Lewis’s are aerial foragers. Although they sometimes glean insects off of tree barks, they mainly catch insects using acrobatic aerial displays like a flycatcher. This is why it’s important for their habitat to have a lot of high perches for foraging. In autumn they harvest acorns and other nuts, break them apart to store in crevices, and defends their makeshift granaries.
Courtship displays by the male include bill pointing (away from the potential mate), circular flights, and wing spreading. Males will establish the territory first and the female will select the nesting cavity. Nesting cavities are used multiple years in a row, in either a natural cavity or one made by another woodpecker species. Breed pairs stay monogamous for around 4 years.
Both sexes incubate between 6-7 eggs for about 12-16. They share parenting duties once the young hatch and will both defend the nest cavity. Young fledge about 4-5 weeks after hatching and will stay with the parents awhile after.
During breeding, males use 3 kinds of calls: chatter (similar to a dolphin call), call notes, and screech (skeer! or keea!). They drum much less than other woodpeckers.
Lewis’s populations have decreased over the past few decades, making them more erratic and hard to monitor. Population declines are due to habitat destruction and fire suppression of pine forests. They are on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List and being watched closely by environmental groups. In Oregon, Lewis’s have been successful breeding in artificial nest boxes to help increase populations.
- A Lewis’s Woodpecker specimen that is found in the Harvard Museum of Natural History is the only in-tact biological specimen from Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition.
- Lewis’s Woodpeckers can catch multiple insects on a single flight.
- Most woodpeckers have a flight pattern of 3 flaps and a glide. Lewis’s flight pattern is more direct. When feeding they will glide down from a high perch. To return to a perch, the Lewis’s will flap continuously.