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See Lewis’s woodpecker while you can

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

The Lewis’s woodpecker is a fairly large bird at 10.75 inches in length with a wingspan of 21 inches.

This uncommon, striking woodpecker has a dark green back, dark head, gray neck, pink belly, a dark red face and long dark wings. It was named after Meriwether Lewis who saw the bird in 1805 while on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Another western bird named after the explorers is the Clark’s nutcracker, named after William Clark.

This woodpecker is only found throughout the west, including New Mexico. It prefers fairly open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with lots of standing dead trees.

It also can be found in piñon and juniper woodlands near streams. I first spotted a Lewis’s woodpecker when hiking in a meadow in the Manzano Mountains, just east of Albuquerque. I needed my binoculars and field guide to identify it as a woodpecker because it was not acting like most woodpeckers I was familiar with.

Most woodpeckers cling to tree trunks and branches, and use their long tongues and sturdy beaks to probe the bark for tree boring insects. The Lewis’s woodpecker searches for insects mainly by perching – like a flycatcher – on open tree branches or wires. It then flies out and catches the insects in midair.

The Lewis’s woodpecker’s diet changes from insects in summer, to nuts and grains in winter months. Now is the time to watch for this woodpecker as it gathers acorns and other nuts to stash for its winter food supply. It stores these foods in tree crevices.

This woodpecker guards its winter food cache from intruders by spreading its long wings while chattering and fluffing its feathers.

During the summer nesting season, instead of creating its own nesting cavity by using its beak to bore into decaying tree trunks, the Lewis’s woodpecker looks for existing holes, often created by other woodpeckers, to raise their young. In the fall, following nesting season, some Lewis’s woodpeckers stay near their nesting site while others form small nomadic groups that often move to lower elevations to spend the winter months.

The Lewis’s woodpecker’s population has declined by 72% between 1970 and 2014. This woodpecker is threatened by many factors including changing forest conditions due to fire suppression, grazing, logging and climate change. Leaving some dead trees standing on your property can be beneficial to this woodpecker if it is safe for you to do so.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.”


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