Adult. Note: glossy green back and red face.
© Gregg Thompson
  • Adult
  • Adult. Note: glossy green back and red face.
  • Juvenile

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Lewis's Woodpecker

Melanerpes lewis
Most birds in this group are adapted for climbing and perching in trees and range widely in size. The feet of most species have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back, a special adaptation for trunk-climbing known as a zygodactyl arrangement. The order includes families as diverse as the puffbirds and the toucans, but only the woodpecker family is found in Washington:
Woodpeckers have many adaptations that allow them to perch upright against tree trunks and feed on insects under the bark or within the wood of the tree itself. Further specialization has produced many aberrant forms with different behavior and feeding habits. Most use their strong claws and stiff tail feathers to brace themselves against tree trunks as they climb. The specially adapted skulls of woodpeckers allow them to pound hard on tree trunks to excavate nesting and roosting cavities, to find food, and to communicate and attract mates. A special arrangement of bones and elastic tissues allows woodpeckers to extend their long tongues and extract insect prey from the holes they chisel with their strong, sharp beaks. The principal food of most woodpeckers is insects, especially the larvae of wood-boring beetles. A few woodpeckers feed on ants, nuts, or flying insects. Many also take a small amount of fruit. Most woodpeckers have rounded wings and an undulating flight pattern. The plumage of most is some combination of black and white, though brown is not uncommon. Many, especially males, have small patches of red or yellow on their heads. Although they may appear to damage trees, woodpeckers are generally good for tree health because they feed so heavily on wood-boring beetles. Most woodpecker species are monogamous, and many form long-term pair bonds. The nests are usually lined with nothing but the woodchips created by excavating the nest cavity, which is excavated by both members of the pair. Both sexes incubate the eggs, with males generally taking the night shift. Both sexes also feed and tend the young.
Fairly common resident east. Casual west.
  • Species of Concern

General Description

Lewis's Woodpeckers are large, unusual-looking woodpeckers with dark iridescent green-black backs, pink undersides, gray breasts and collars, and red faces rimmed with black. Males and female look alike. Juveniles also have dark iridescent green-black backs, but are mottled brown beneath, with dark brown heads and no gray collars or red faces.


Lewis's Woodpeckers prefer open forests with brushy understories and snags for nesting. In Washington, they use three main types of habitat: forested riversides with large cottonwoods and other hardwoods, Ponderosa pine forests, especially at the lower edge of the tree line, and Garry oak stands.


In spring and summer when flying insects are about, Lewis's Woodpeckers get most of their food by fly-catching, sometimes flying quite high. In the fall, they chop nuts into pieces and store them in crevices and holes in trees for the winter. They guard these storage areas throughout the cold season. Lewis's Woodpeckers have a more steady, buoyant flight than most other woodpeckers, with slower wing-beats and longer glides. In flight they can often be mistaken for crows.


Flying insects make up most of the Lewis's Woodpecker's spring and summer diet. In fall and winter they feed principally on acorns, other nuts, seeds, and fruits.


Lewis's Woodpeckers are monogamous and may form long-term pair bonds. Both members of the pair excavate a hole in a decayed tree, typically a cottonwood or Ponderosa pine. The nest consists of a wood-chip lining inside the hole. They commonly reuse nest sites. Both members of the pair generally incubate the 6 to 7 eggs for 12 to 16 days. Both feed the young, which leave the nest after 28 to 34 days. The young are dependent on the parents for some time after they leave the nest.

Migration Status

Most Lewis's Woodpeckers leave Washington in the winter for points south, typically southern Oregon or California. Their migratory movements can vary considerably from year to year, especially if acorn crops fail, but a number of birds often winter in south-central Washington.

Conservation Status

The population of Lewis's Woodpeckers has been reduced by the arrival of European Starlings, which compete for nest sites. They were formerly fairly common in western Washington in burns and prairies, but with development and fire suppression, along with the invasion of starlings, they have been extirpated as a breeding species from western Washington. As Lewis's Woodpeckers are local and erratic in occurrence, their population is difficult to monitor. A decline seen in Washington and throughout their range over the years has led to their listing as an at-risk species by Partners in Flight, Audubon~Washington, and the Washington Gap Analysis project. They are also candidates for endangered-species listing by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Lewis's Woodpeckers breed in eastern Washington, where they are locally common at the transition zone between Ponderosa pine and shrub-steppe habitats. They are also uncommon breeders in northeastern Washington in Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Lincoln Counties. They were formerly common in far-eastern Washington, but numbers in Spokane County have declined dramatically, and populations appear to be extirpated in Walla Walla and Columbia Counties, although there may still be a lingering breeding colony in the Blue Mountains. They can sometimes be found as rare migrants in western Washington. Winter populations can also often be found at Fort Simco and Upper Cowiche Creek (Yakima County), and Klickitat County.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget Trough
North Cascades
West Cascades RRRRR
Okanogan UUUUUUR
Canadian Rockies RRRR
Blue Mountains UUUUUR
Columbia Plateau RRRRR

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Yellow ListCandidateHigh Concern

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern