Rare Species Watch: The Three-Toed Woodpecker

Illustration by David Sibley
Illustration by David Sibley
By Muir Eaton and Andy Jones, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota

The 1999 blowdown in the BWCAW damaged many acres of undisturbed boreal forest, destroying the nesting habitats for
many species of birds. The Three-toed Woodpecker, (Picoides tridactylus) however, is benefiting from this disturbance twofold. Their preferred habitat is disturbed areas within coniferous forests, but recentlyburned conifers are an added attraction. Damaged conifers become home to many insects, and this abundant food source attracts Three-toed Woodpeckers.

This species is native to the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia (the only woodpecker species found on both continents). In North America, they are restricted to the Rocky Mountains in the west and Canada in the east. One of the few places where this bird occurs in the eastern United States is here, in the Boundary Waters. This species can be difficult to locate due to its silent habits and cryptic coloration. However, placing yourself in the proper habitat with careful observation will greatly increase your chances of finding this elusive bird.

The Three-toed Woodpecker has a black appearance overall, and is a little smaller than the familiar American Robin. The males sport a yellow cap (rather than red, which is seen in most other woodpeckers). Unfortunately, this species is quite similar to the Black-backed Woodpecker, which is
also found in this region. As its name implies, Black-backs have an entirely black back, whereas the Three-toed has white barring on its back. Additionally, Threetoeds have two white stripes on the face; the Black-backed has only one.

On your next trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, if you see a dark woodpecker with a yellow cap and white stripes on the back, you are looking at a male Three-toed Woodpecker.

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