A Short Primer on Lewis’s Woodpecker
July 2023

My first sighting of a Lewis’s woodpecker was in a campground near Winnemucca, Nevada. That was many years ago. I was new to the West then, and did not know these woodpeckers existed. What I saw appeared to be a woodpecker, but it had a very different color pattern from all the woodpeckers I already knew, both East and West. Since that sighting in Nevada, I’ve only caught them in fleeting glimpses.

Most woodpecker’s feather designs are combinations of black and white blocks or stripes, often with dashes of bright red. Examples are the downy, hairy, pileated, red-headed and acorn woodpeckers. It’s as if their designs were inspired by the artist Mondrian. Lewis’s woodpeckers, on the other hand, offer a darker theme with a more subtle palette range reminiscent of the sober Rembrandt. Many woodpeckers come in clown suits while the Lewis’s wear elegant royal garments.

Our current campground in Nathrop, CO has large cottonwoods sheltering some of the campsites near Chalk Creek. I could see and hear a variety of birds, including nuthatches, Bullocks orioles, American goldfinches, yellow warblers, catbirds, black-headed grosbeaks, hummingbirds and more. Early one morning I walked through the largest cottonwood grove, green and lush from the exceptional spring rains. Lewis’s woodpeckers were flying high above the campers, landing in and leaving from the same tree repeatedly. On closer inspection, I realized the pair had a nest hidden in a natural cavity near the Y of two large branches.

I waited patiently. Overtime, the parents alternated delivery of many insect meals. The small chicks were completely hidden from view, each parent disappearing and quickly re-emerging from the tree opening. I have no idea how old they might be but it was clear they had not yet ventured out of their cozy treetop shelter. Lewis’s woodpeckers typically have 6 or 7 nestlings; that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

As I watched the birds, it was if two separate worlds existed. The bottom dwellers – the humans and their pets – scurried on the ground, preparing food, making bathroom runs, peering no more than a few feet above their heads. High in these tall cottonwoods, the birds lived and flew and fed freely, equally disinterested in the busy human life below.

Lewis’s woodpeckers are unusual because, despite their family name, they rarely peck wood. Instead, they primarily catch flying insects or snatch insects from surfaces. They can look more like flycatchers or swallows in their acrobatic hunting flights, waiting on a high post until a doomed insect flies near. These woodpecker’s also like acorns, nuts and fruit. They live in a variety of habitats that have open spaces for aerial foraging, including burns, cut-over woods, pine-oak woods and cottonwood groves. Lewis and Clark were the first EuroAmericans to describe this woodpecker. Sometime later, the bird was named after Meriweather Lewis.

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