Teller Wildlife: The Lewis's woodpecker holds a unique niche amongst Bitterroot woodpeckers

Teller Wildlife: The Lewis's woodpecker holds a unique niche amongst Bitterroot woodpeckers


Named after Meriwether Lewis, on his famous westward journey, the Lewis’s woodpecker holds a unique niche among other Bitterroot woodpeckers.

While woodpeckers typically use their strong neck and lingual muscles to expose insects from trees, the Lewis’s woodpecker makes short flights from an arboreal vantage point to capture flying insects.

This adaptation allows this species to occupy river bottom cottonwood galleries throughout the Bitterroot providing not only ample flying insects but plenty of cavity nest sites. This aerial acrobat also takes seasonal advantage of berries and seeds within the ground vegetation of the floodplain.

With winter months lacking in the number of flying insects, the Lewis’s depend on seeds such as grains and acorns and typically migrate to warmer temperatures.

About the size of a Robin, the Lewis’s woodpecker has a general dark black appearance with “wax” like streaks of pinkish-red on its breast and flank region. It also has the same pinkish-red cheek feathers and light grey neck feathers. It has a dark eye with a black head crest and jet black beak. In the right light, the black wings and back feathers will have a greenish iridescent appearance.

Lewis’s woodpeckers are found in most western states that have high elevation ponderosa pine forest and river bottom cottonwood galleries. They are often found in burnt forests that not only harbor many insects but provide for abundant cavity-nesting opportunities.

There is not a great deal known about their migration as the birds typically leave the Bitterroot for southern wintering habitats arriving back in the Bitterroot in the spring to establish breeding territories, nest and rear their young. Like most woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers occupy existing tree cavities in dead or decaying trees.

Research reveals that Lewis’s woodpeckers lack the fused vertebrae and thick skulls that most woodpeckers have which aids in the aggressive pecking behavior to create a nest cavity or expose a tasty insect. The competition for these nesting sites is heavy with non-native starlings attempting to occupy many of the available sites.

Lewis’s woodpeckers will often return to use the same nesting site as the previous year and banding studies show that they retain the same mate year after year. If successful, the hatchlings are near naked without the downy plumage that most songbirds have and survival is dependent on warmer temperatures.

Locally, MPG Ranch, near Florence, has been trapping and banding Lewis’s woodpeckers since 2011 in an attempt to learn more about their migration and habitat needs.

According to MPG researcher, William Blake, “They are using a new type of technology called Motus, a wildlife tracking system. Motus is basically a large-scale stationary form of radio telemetry using automated receivers that continuously search for tag signals.”

MPG biologists recently installed a Motus station on Teller that will track individual birds as they migrate south out of the Bitterroot. The goal is to have numerous Motus stations throughout the intermountain west such that migration corridors can be identified throughout the birds' entire range. That information will aid biologists with management actions aimed at ensuring suitable habitat remains intact for the species.

A walk down the public Teller Trail at the Woodside Fishing Access should give you the opportunity to see the fourth largest member of the North American woodpecker family.

If you see a dark, robin-sized bird fly off from the top of a Cottonwood with a few aerial maneuvers returning to the same tree, you can almost bet you have found the Lewis’. This bird has been doing the same acrobatic moves since well before the person for which it was named, walked the same banks of the Bitterroot.

Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge executive director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at


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