Lewis's Woodpecker

Bird of the Month: Lewis’s Woodpecker

 By Andy McCormick           

Lewis’s Woodpecker by Mick Thompson

Lewis’s Woodpecker by Mick Thompson

Scientific name: Melanerpes lewis 

Length 10.75”    

Wingspan 21”    

Weight  4 oz. (115 g)     

AOU Alpha Code LEWO  


It flies like a crow. It catches insects in mid-air. It must be a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  

Lewis’s Woodpecker is a special breed of woodpecker. It does not spend a lot of time pecking at wood. However, it does nest in a cavity, but usually in a well-decayed tree that was previously burned or had a portion broken off, and where the excavation is relatively easy. The Lewis’s likes more open forests rather than heavily wooded areas, and it often hunts from a perch flying up to nab insects in flight. Its back is a distinctive glossy black with green hue, and it has a red face and pink belly. Not like any other woodpecker. 


In Washington Lewis’s Woodpecker prefers the Ponderosa pine forest on the eastern slope of the Cascade Range. It also uses mixed pine-oak woods and cottonwood groves and can be found in parts of Southeast Washington near Yakima and in the Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon, where it will winter. Its range once included parts of Western Washington, but as old burn areas and dead and broken trees have been replaced with new plantings or human development, its preferred habitat has been lost (Versa, et al). The Lewis’s has high fidelity to its nest site often returning for several consecutive years to breed. It relies on natural cavities and rarely excavates its own cavity. 

Typically, 6-7 eggs are deposited in the nest cavity. Both parents incubate the eggs and after hatching both bring insects back to the nestlings. At hatching Lewis’s Woodpeckers are altricial (featherless and dependent) and remain in the nest for 4-5 weeks and are fed from 5 to 15 times per day depending on the availability of insects (Vierling, et al).  


Lewis’s Woodpecker does not use the undulating flight common to most other woodpeckers. It employs a rowing motion while in flight and will often soar high in the air. Its flight has been compared to that of a crow or jay.  

The Lewis’s is in the genus Melanerpes, black creeper, from the Greek melas, black, and erpo, to creep, referencing the ability of the woodpecker to climb up tree trunks (Holloway). It is named after Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who when he found this bird, wrote, “I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today…it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys (sic) a good deal like a jay bird (in Vierling, et al).  


In a manner similar to that of the Acorn Woodpecker (M. erythrocephalus) Lewis’s Woodpecker will store acorns and other nuts and sometimes insects in holes and cracks in dried limbs for feeding young or as a cache for winter storage.  The Lewis’s will break up the nuts into smaller pieces and then set them in place where it will then guard the storage area for later use (Kaufman).  


Over its range Lewis’s Woodpecker is a sporadic species making it difficult to compile an accurate census of this bird. It is considered uncommon or rare throughout its range over the whole year (Vierling, et al). In general, since 1966 this species has been in decline and some possible reasons for the decline include declining availability of suitable trees or mass stores (acorns, nuts, etc.) and the use of pesticides in the environment reducing food abundance.  

Lewis’s Woodpecker prefers habitat that is increasingly scarce. It depends on standing, dead or partly dead conifers in advanced stages of decay. It also nests in live aspen that are infected to varying degrees with heartrot fungus. Old cottonwood trees or power poles with desiccation cracks provide winter storage sites. Crowned-burned ponderosa pine forest is a key nesting habitat. Fire suppression has led to a loss of this habitat (Vierling, et al).  

There are no legal efforts toward conservation, but some writers have recommended snag retention after wildfires in pine and Douglas fir forests, preservation of cottonwood forests and snags, and selective thinning or periodic burns to provide habitat opportunities for he Lewis’s Woodpecker. 

References available upon request from amccormick@eastsideaudubon.org