E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Melanerpes lewis (Gray, 1849)
Lewis's Woodpecker
Family: Picidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

Photo of species

© Tom Munson  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #9766)

Distribution of Melanerpes lewis in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

The entire upperparts, including the wings and tail, and wholly black with a greenish gloss. The underparts are largely pinkish or rose-red, contrasting sharply with the blackish undertail coverts and lower belly and the pale whitish-grey upper breast; the grey of the breast continues around the sides of the neck to the nape, forming a complete pale collar. The forehead, ear coverts, lores, chin, and upper throat are dark red, separated from the pale grey collar by black. The iris is dark, the straight bill is blackish, and the legs and feet are blackish or dark grey.

This plumage is held into the late fall (November) of the first year. The upperparts (including the wings and tail) are blackish and glossed with green, similar to the adult. The underparts are largely brownish and somewhat mottled, however, with blackish undertail coverts and a variable reddish or pinkish tinge to the central belly. The head is wholly dark brownish, sometimes with a reddish tinge to the face and some paler buffy or brownish mottling or barring. Some juveniles show a more noticeable adult-like pattern, including more extensive red on the face and belly and some pale grey around the breast and neck. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the adult.

Total Length: 26-27 cm
Mass: 108-138 g
Source: Tobalske (1997); Sibley (2002)



This is a very distinctive species in all plumages and is unlikely to be confused with any other woodpecker. When in flight, its shape, flight style, and dark colouration are more like a crow than a woodpecker.

The Lewis’s Woodpecker is relatively quiet compared to other woodpeckers. The most commonly-heard calls include a squeaky, one- or two-note yick (male) or yick-ik (female), a harsh, relatively loud churrr that is often given in succession, and a descending dry, rattling chatter. Also gives a weak, sneezy teef or kitsif. The drumming of the male is short, weak, medium-paced and relatively low-intensity, and is usually followed by several well-spaced individual taps after the roll (similar in pattern to the drumming of sapsuckers).

Source: Tobalske (1997); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Pair formation occurs immediately after arrival on the breeding grounds. The male performs a variety of visual displays during courtship, including wing-out displays and circle-flight displays, and these are typically associated with or accompanied by calls (chatter call, churrr call) or drumming.

Like other woodpeckers, the Lewis’s Woodpecker nests in cavities in both living and dead trees (coniferous and deciduous), as well as in artificial structures such as fence posts and power poles. Nest cavities are situated between 1.0 and 30.5 m in height, although mosts nests occur between 3 m and 9 m in height. The woodpecker often excavates the nest, but also utilizes natural cavities where they occur and will reuse old nests. Occasionally nests semi-colonially, including multiple pairs in a single snag. The depth of the nest cavity is 33-61 cm, with an internal diameter of 13-16 cm. The diameter of the entrance hole is 5-8 cm. The floor of the cavity is typically lined with wood chips, sometimes to a depth of 8 cm or more.

A single clutch of (2) 4-7 (9) eggs is laid between mid-April and mid-June, with most broods initiated between mid-May and early June. The smooth, non-glossy, white eggs are incubated by both sexes for 12-16 days before hatching. Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-April and late June.

The young are altricial and naked at hatching, with feathers beginning to appear by the second week. The young are tended by both parents and remain in the nest for 28-34 days before fledging; nestlings begin to appear at the entrance to the nest hole and beg loudly during the last 3-4 days before fledging. The young remain in the vicinity of the nest for ~10 days after fledging, during which time they are tended by both parents. Following dispersal, juveniles and adults coalesce into post-breeding flocks prior to fall migration. Nestlings and dependent fledglings occur in British Columbia between early May and early August, with most present between mid-June and early July.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Tobalske (1997)
Foraging Ecology

The Lewis’s Woodpecker has one of the more peculiar foraging behaviours of British Columbia’s woodpeckers, being dependent primarily on fruits and flying insects and consuming few, if any, wood-boring insects. Although this species does obtain insect prey by gleaning it from the trunks, foliage, and large branches of trees and shrubs, flycatching is a more important means of foraging during much of the spring and summer. During flycatching bouts, individuals perch conspicuously in the open atop dead snags, power poles, or live trees and pursue flying insects during aerial sallies, often returning to a perch with a brief gliding flight. During the late summer, fall, and winter, this species switches its diet and consumes large amounts of wild and cultivated fruits, nuts (including acorns along the coast), berries, corn, and wild seeds. This species often stores nuts and seeds in caches during the winter, although insect prey is still preferred during warm winter periods when flying insects become active.

Source: Tobalske (1997)


The Lewis’s Woodpecker breeds primarily in open forested areas at low elevations where an abundance of large snags provides suitable nesting sites and an open, grassy understory supports high populations of flying insects. It tends to avoid closed forests, even if there are suitable snags available. In British Columbia, the primary habitat types used by this species include open Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-fir forests, riparian cottonwood stands, and regenerating burns. Extirpated populations on the south coast were formerly associated with burns, clearcuts, and Garry Oak woodlands. The densest populations in B.C. are currently associated with riparian cottonwood stands in the southern interior. Migrants in late fall commonly move into a wider variety of habitats such as orchards, agricultural areas, and suburban parks. Wintering birds occur almost exclusively in association with orchards and suburban areas.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Cooper et al. (1998)


Global Range

Occurs only in western North America. Breeds from southern British Columbia south to central California, Arizona, and New Mexico and winters from extreme south-central B.C. south to southern California, southern Arizona, and southern New Mexico. Casual vagrant south to northern Mexico and east to New England and Newfoundland.
BC Distribution

Uncommon to locally fairly common at low elevations in the south-central interior, from the eastern slopes of the Coast and Cascade Mountains (Manning Park, etc.) east to the Kettle River (Midway, Grand Forks, etc.) and north to the Fraser-Thompson-Nicola Basin (Kamloops, Merritt, Cache Creek, Barrière) and Shuswap Lake (Salmon Arm, etc.) areas. Farther east, this species is rare and local in southern portions of the West Kootenays (Trail, Castlegar, Nelson, Slocan Valley) and is uncommon along the southern Rocky Mountain Trench north to Invermere. It is also locally uncommon along the Fraser River north to the Chilcotin River and Williams Lake area, and is rare to uncommon west into the southern Coast Mountains (Pemberton area, Fraser Canyon). The largest populations currently occur in the southern and central Okanagan Valley, where the species is considered common. Very rare during the breeding season farther north of the typical breeding range to the Clearwater, Revelstoke, and Golden areas, but breeding occurs in these areas sporadically, if at all. Casual during the breeding season on the south coast, but does not breed in this area.

Uncommon in winter in the southern and central Okanagan Valley and very rare in the northern Okanagan Valley. Casual in winter in the Thompson Basin (Kamloops) and on the south coast (southern Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland).

Migration and Vagrancy
Uncommon to fairly common spring and fall migrant throughout the south-central and south-eastern (West Kootenays, southern Rocky Mountain Trench) interior. On the south coast, this species is a very rare spring and rare to uncommon fall migrant along the western slopes of the Cascade Range in southwestern B.C., but is otherwise a very rare spring and rare fall migrant in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. Casual spring and fall vagrant on northern and eastern Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, and casual to very rare from spring through fall (primarily in fall) through central B.C. north of the breeding range (to Prince George and the Bulkley Valley). Casual in fall (October, November) on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Although small numbers winter in the Okanagan Valley, the bulk of the population arrives in the souther interior during early May (occasionally in mid- to late April). On the south coast, the small spring movement similarly occurs primarily during May. Southward-bound fall migrants move through the southern interior during August and early September, with most individuals having left the province by late September (although occasional migrants linger into October). On the south coast, fall vagrants occur primarily between August and October.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Cooper et al. (1998)


Population and Conservation Status

The Lewis’s Woodpecker has experienced significant and prolonged declines throughout much of its range in B.C. over the past century, including local extirpations. Populations breeding and wintering on the south coast, including southern and eastern Vancouver Island (north at least to Comox), the Gulf Islands, and the Lower Mainland (east to Chilliwack) were described as “abundant” in the early 20th century, but this entire population had become extirpated by the 1960s. The same trend occurred with adjacent coastal populations in western Washington and western Oregon. This population was last recorded breeding in B.C. in the Lower Mainland in 1963, and only occasional vagrants from the interior populations now occur on the coast.

Declines have also been widespread throughout the southern interior, although the species remains locally common in some areas (e.g., southern Okanagan Valley). For example, the species formerly bred in the Rocky Mountain Trench north to Golden (now absent north of Invermere) and in the Revelstoke and Edgewood areas of the Arrow Lakes (now a casual vagrant north of Castlegar). Similarly, the species was described as “uncommon” in the northern Okanagan Valley, with an estimated 20 breeding pairs, in 1990. Twenty years later, however, the species has yet to be recorded from this area on the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas, despite three years of intensive surveys.

Overall, it appears that populations throughout the interior are stable or declining, and nowhere (except locally in response to recent burns) are populations increasing or expanding. Possible explanations for these declines include changes in forestry practices and safety standards that require in the removal of potentially hazardous snags, competition with introduced European Starlings, loss of habitat to urban and agricultural development, reservoir creation (e.g., Koocanusa Reservoir), pesticide use (affecting both fruits and insect prey), and (on the coast) loss of Garry Oak meadow habitat; however, the true cause of the decline of the Lewis’s Woodpecker in B.C. (and indeed throughout much of its global range) remains somewhat of a mystery.

As a result of the widespread declines, this species is considered provincially red-listed (Endangered) by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre (CDC) and federally Threatened by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Tobalske (1997); Cooper et al. (1998)


The Lewis’s Woodpecker is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. Appears to be most closely related to the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), although these two species differ significantly in plumage characteristics.

Source: Tobalske (1997)

Status Information

Scientific NameOrigin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
Melanerpes lewisNativeS2S3BBlueT (Apr 2010)
Melanerpes lewis pop. 1NativeSXBRedT (Apr 2010)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-15 5:08:38 PM]
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