Tuesday, March 5, 2013

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Once thought to be the only woodpecker found in boreal forests of both the Old and New Worlds, ornithologists recently determined that North American birds are genetically distinct from European and Asian birds. Because they are now considered to be separate species, our birds are now named American Three-toed Woodpeckers.

This woodpecker breeds across Alaska and Canada, and south through the Rocky Mountains almost to Mexico. In Minnesota the species is rare, with very few confirmed breeding records (Eckert). This photograph was taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The range corresponds with spruce forests. This woodpecker specializes on eating bark beetles. In South Dakota we often looked for three-toed woodpeckers in and near dead trees left by forest fires. Indeed, Leonard (2001) writes that this species is threatened by “fire suppression and salvage logging of trees damaged by fire or insects.”

Leonard also relates a rather macabre Native American tale in which "many ages ago, in a time of famine, [the three-toed woodpecker] devoured his mate, and wiped his claws clean on the back of his head; … [a] yellow mark of the ‘fat,’… remains [on the bird’s head] till this day."

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