This week’s Bird of the week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the American three-toed woodpecker.
The group of woodpeckers who evolved with the loss of the fourth toe only contains three species. This adaptation confers on these woodpeckers the ability to lean further back from the tree trunk and hit it with more force. The American three-toed woodpecker is generally found only in northern North America and in mountains of the west.
These woodpeckers are specialists of forested areas that have been disturbed by bark beetle outbreaks, wildfire and other disturbances which result in areas of snags and dead and dying trees, and high numbers of insects. The spruce beetle, which has caused so much devastation to our high-elevation forests, has created the perfect habitat for them.
Fresh flakes of bark at the base of a tree and a trunk nearly bare can be evidence of this woodpecker at work. They employ a distinctive foraging style in which they chip sideways at the bark to uncover the insect larvae underneath. They will also drill deep into the tree for wood-boring beetles, glean insects from the bark and even drill sap wells and drink the sap as a sapsucker does.
This three-toed is intermediate in size between the more familiar downy and hairy woodpeckers, whom they resemble. Distinctive traits include fine blackish barring on the flanks and a yellow patch on the forehead of the male. Outside of breeding season, they are often quiet and solitary. A primary cavity nester, pairs excavate a new hole each year, creating future nest sites for other small birds.
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