An Unusual Woodpecker Visitor

November 1st, 2021

The last two weeks as I have been performing wildlife surveys in Little Lake Valley, an unusual sound has caught my attention along the riparian corridors and oak woodlands. A sort of churring and rapid squeaking that I had not ever heard before. When I investigated, I was excited and thrilled to discover that there were Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the trees.

As the week went on it seemed that there were Lewis’s Woodpeckers everywhere I went, so therefore was grateful to have many opportunities to observe them in action.

Lewis’s Woodpecker, Melanerpes lewis, is not your usual woodpecker in appearance or behavior. It does not follow the normal black and white and red pattern of most of the native woodpeckers in the area. The Northern Flicker is another one that has its own color scheme and habits, but the Lewis’s really seems to diverge from the typical. It has a pink, and it can be a very bright pink, to reddish belly with a gray collar and a rich dark green back. There is white around the throat to a very red face hood and mask on the adult that is very elegant. They seldom dig holes into trees, instead preferring to glean the bark of trees for insects or catching them on the wing, like a flycatcher. Lewis’s Woodpeckers sit perpendicularly on a high perch then fly out to catch a dragonfly or whatever flying insect they can. Their flight is like a crow with broad wings flapping strongly but their tail, with rigid and pointed feathers, is distinctive. Because the green is very dark, they appear black but when you see that beautiful rich green with the pink belly it is breathtaking!

Since they don’t do much digging into trees but are indeed cavity nesters like all woodpeckers, they may use other cavity nesters’ old holes for their nests and if needed enlarge the cavity.

So, what are these unusual woodpeckers doing here? Two years ago, fifty or so of them showed up at the Magruder Ranch in Potter Valley. They had not been seen there in that number before and this influx was a magical sight as they did their flycatching from oak treetop to oak treetop. We hypothesized that the fires up in the Redding area may have brought them down. Their breeding habitats include ponderosa pine forests, oak woodlands, orchards, riparian corridors with large cottonwoods, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. We have not had them breed in Mendocino County. The twelve or so Lewis’s Woodpeckers that I have seen in our valley this year may also be here because of the recent fires in the foothills of the Sierras or the fire in Lassen. Another explanation for their movement, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, are the large acorn crops that we have had this year. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are mostly insectivores, but during the fall and winter they will supplement their diet with nuts, such as acorns, pecans, and fruits. They use their bills to pound the acorns into pieces and then store them in crevices where they actively keep other birds from getting them.

Another interesting fact about the Lewis’s Woodpecker is that it was given its name in 1911 by Alexander Wilson, paying homage to Lewis Meriweather, the first explorer to describe the bird in 1804. Their conservation status was listed by Partners in Flight as a species on the Yellow Watch list. This is because the population declined by 72% from 1970 to 2014, leaving only about 69,000 individuals left. The threats to them include changing forest conditions due to fire suppression. They need diseased and old snags for nesting as do many woodpeckers. Habitat fragmentation brought on by grazing and logging of course are other factors. The recent forest fires that have occurred have become more intense and devastating to the entire forest habitat due to past fire suppression policies coupled with a changing climate. This may be another important factor in the decrease of these woodpeckers. The world would be a less interesting place without these beautiful and unusual woodpeckers.

If you are out and about in the Willits Valley listen for the squeaks and churr sounds of the Lewis’s Woodpecker and look up to the tops of the trees on dead limbs for a crow-like bird flycatching. You hopefully will get a glimpse of the green and pink woodpecker!