Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Species Focus - Lewis's Woodpecker

"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” - Meriwether Lewis, July 2oth 1805.

I have long been fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. I have read the journals and most of the available treatises on the subject. I even took a seminar class on the expedition in grad school. The thought of travelling out into the thrilling unknown, the romantacism of seeing the American West before it was "civilised", all of these things draw me and thousands of others into learning about the famed expedition. Perhaps as a biologist the part that intrigues be the most is the discovery of new species of plants and animals. Lewis was a pretty good naturalist in his own right, and when not suffering from one of his bouts of depression, would take copious notes and samples of the new flora and fauna they were seeing as the traversed the continent. As an ornithologist I am of course most interested in the new birds discovered by the expedition, perhaps the singular woodpecker (or crow) of Lewis most of all.

When visiting the Harvard Museum during an ornithological conference, I was able to see and photograph the voucher specimen of Lewis's Woodpecker, that is the actual Lewis's Woodpecker collected by Lewis himself and thus the first known to science. Sadly most of the specimens and other artifacts collected by the expedition have been lost, either in fires or other mishaps. So this lone Lewis's Woodpecker represents an extremely valuable part of American and scientific history, a truly fascinating and valuable artifact!

Besides its discovery having an interesting and fascinating backstory, the bird itself is decidedly odd. As you can tell from Captain Lewis's quote above, upon first glance many people, even with reasonable naturalist backgrounds may confuse Lewis's Woodpecker with some kind of corvid. It often perches upright at the top of a tree or limb (very un-woodpercker like), it flies kind of like a jay and has such a dark. odd color pattern (a mix of dark green, gray, crimson red, and blushy pink), so unlike any other bird, especially woodpecker!

I recently spent several days in the northwest corner of Oklahoma and the southeast corner of Colorado, right at the edge of the sporadic range of the Lewis's Woodpecker, and spent a leisurely hour watching the behavior of and photographing a group of five Lewis's Woodpeckers in the beautiful Cottonwood canyon in the Comanche National Grassland.

One of the most interesting things about Lewis's Woodpeckers is that in the summer, they rarely forage in the manner of other woodpeckers (that is hopping up and down the sides of trees, hammering and scraping at the bark to get at the coleoptera larva and other goodies underneath). Instead they spend much of their time hawking insects, much like a flycatcher! The group of LEWO that I watched were doing just that, flying out from a grove of cottonwoods in the beautiful canyon catching dragonflies and large grasshoppers! The above photo shows one of the LEWO with a large grasshopper.

In the winter, Lewis's Woodpeckers return to feeding much like other woodpeckers. They are known to cache acorns and other nuts, and that is in fact what the above bird was doing. They were collected acorns from a nearby oak and wedging them into gaps in the bark of this giant cottonwood!

Sadly, this odd and fascinating species is rapidly disappearing from the landscape. BBS records indicate a general decline since the 1960's and there are several instances of known local extirpations. Though loss of habitat and especially nesting places are often blamed, Lewis's Woodpeckers which are generally uncommon and spottily distributed throughout their range are difficult to study and thus poorly understood. Hopefully, more research will discover keys to conservation for the LEWO. One of my favorite species and a unique part of American history.


  1. A nice read on a species I keep missing out on. Great pics, commentary, and particularly cool to have seen M. Lewis' actual LEWO voucher specimen.

  2. Great to find another Oklahoma birder who blogs. You should join the Nature Blog Network and the Oklahoma Blog Network.