Wild Files: It’s Our Nature

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Keeping up with the theme of our feathered friends this February, let’s look at woodpeckers which are part of the Picidae family. 

The International Ornithological Union indicates there are 236 species of woodpeckers worldwide. Lewis’s woodpecker was first described by ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, in 1811 and named after Meriwether Lewis who first saw the bird during his famous westward expedition with William Clark. Native to much of central and western United States. Lewis’s woodpeckers breed on the unceded territories of the Secwépemc, and Ktunaxa Peoples, and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of B.C., from late April to July. Their ideal breeding habitats are woodlands near streams and rivers. The southeastern area of British Columbia is the only area in Canada where this species of woodpeckers is found. 

Lewis’s woodpeckers have red faces, black behinds, pink bellies, grey collars and dark green backs. This species of woodpecker has broader wings than most. While Lewis’s woodpeckers’ peck into trees for wood-boring insects with their chisel-like beak, they also spot flying insects, then soar out to snag them mid-air. They feed on berries and nuts and will even store them in cracks and holes of trees to save for winter. Lewis’s woodpeckers are typically 28 centimetres (cm) in length and weigh 139 grams (g). They have a wingspan of 52 cm. 

Photo by Terrance Carr

The descent: A family or group of woodpeckers is called a descent. The North American Breeding Bird Survey  says Lewis’s woodpeckers are more uncommon than other species and between 1968 and 2019, saw a 48 per cent decline in population. Partners in Flight rates them 15 out of 20 on the continental concern score, placing them on the Yellow Watch List. They are threatened by ever-changing forest conditions such as logging, grazing, and fire suppression. This results in fewer standing dead or decaying trees that Lewis’s woodpeckers depend on for nesting.  Rather than excavating their own holes, Lewis’s woodpeckers prefer to use existing holes or crevices to create their nests which are at least a foot below its entrance. Woodpeckers have special feathers covering their nostrils to prevent dust and splinters from going inside.

Using their heads: All woodpeckers hit their heads with over 1,000 grams (g) of force on trees and can peck their bills 8,000 to 12,000 times per day at forces of over 1000 g. These constant hard hits of their head never cause any harm.  Chinese scientists discovered that head of woodpeckers is designed to transfer this strain down their body with their heads only taking 0.3 per cent of the force. They are also very intelligent.

The sound of love: Compared to other species, Lewis’s woodpeckers are much quieter. When looking for love, woodpeckers aim to attract attention and a mate by banging on objects with their beaks to make a loud drumming sound. Both males and females drum and will do so on trees, telephone poles or metal objects.  What may sound like a noisy nuisance to humans, this banging is sweet music to woodpeckers.  Males will give a harsh churr three to eight times during their courtship. Courting males will also lift their wings while circling around a tree and calling out to a female of interest. Both genders chatter in a series of squeaks throughout the year. It is the male who builds the nest and shares the responsibility incubation. The nesting period for female woodpeckers is 28 to 34 days and they lay a clutch of five to nine eggs. Woodpecker chicks are hatched stark naked with their eyes closed, and leave the nest five weeks after they hatch.

Happy and hardworking: In many Indigenous cultures woodpeckers are associated with friendship and happiness. They are also known to be associated with wishes, luck, prosperity, and spiritual healing. In other cultures, woodpeckers represent hard work, perseverance, and determination.