Even for the most casual observer of nature, a woodpecker is easy to recognize. They all have a stout, straight bill, they perch upright on the trunks of trees and are supported by a stiff tail. In typical woodpecker fashion, they all drill holes in trees to construct a nest. In most species males and females are similar except for a touch of red on the head of the male.
But if you look a little closer, you will find this superficial uniformity hides a diversity of weird relatives. Most woodpeckers eat only insects with just a few berries on the side. But there is a partial vegetarian that eats acorns: the acorn woodpecker. Sapsuckers have a sweet tooth and feed largely upon sap, and then there is the woodpecker that feeds in the most undignified manner. The northern flicker feeds on the ground and has a fondness for ants!
This brings me to the Lewis's woodpecker. While this woodpecker may not stand out at a woodpecker family gathering, it is definitely not your typical woodpecker. For starters, unless you have perfect lighting, it looks like a small black crow. On a bright day with the sun at your back, you might be lucky enough to see the dark-red face, the gray collar and the rosy pink belly. The back may even show an iridescent green sheen. It can be quite striking.
When it flies, it looks even more like a crow, with deep, slow wing beats as it makes its way deliberately to some distant grove of oaks. This is unheard of among the woodpecker clan and is probably slightly embarrassing to them. Respectable woodpeckers fly in a roller-coaster fashion. They flap quickly for a short burst, rising up, then they fold their wings and glide down before repeating the effort. Finches and goldfinches also use this same bounding flight pattern. Why has this rebel of the woodpecker family abandoned undulating flight? It's not known.
Come dinner time, it frequently sallies out from its perch to pluck insects from the air more like a flycatcher than a woodpecker. In this behavior, they are like acorn woodpeckers, but we already knew they were odd. And like acorn woodpeckers, they have a fondness for acorns; however, they don't store whole acorns in granaries. Instead, they shell the acorns, break up the kernels and tuck the pieces into crevices for later use.
They breed locally in the Klamath River canyon and nearby east of the Cascades but apparently not in the Rogue Valley. If you ever do find a nesting pair in the county, please let me know.
This is the time of year to watch for Lewis's woodpeckers as they move into the valley for winter. They migrate in loose flocks, usually numbering about six to 10 birds. On occasion, flocks may exceed 50 individuals. Flocking is another very unwoodpecker-like trait.
If you would like to see Lewis's woodpeckers, head for oaks in relatively open country. Agate Lake, Emigrant Lake, the Table Rocks and the Eagle Point area are some of the best places to look for these somewhat odd birds.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.