Living Bird Magazine
American Three-toed WoodpeckerPicoides dorsalis
- ORDER: Piciformes
- FAMILY: Picidae
A small, unobtrusive woodpecker of northern North America and western mountains, the American Three-toed Woodpecker specializes on the plentiful insect populations found in bark beetle outbreaks, young burned areas, and other disturbances. Its distinctive foraging style involves chipping sideways at dead and dying trees until flakes of bark fall away, revealing insect larvae in the sap-rich tissue just beneath. It has a distinctive drumming style that begins rapidly and trails off at the end, similar only to its larger relative, the Black-backed Woodpecker.More ID Info
Find This Bird
American Three-toed Woodpeckers are much more numerous in disturbed forests than in mature green forest, so look for them in bark beetle outbreaks, recently burned areas (up through about 8 years after a wildfire), and other places with dead and dying trees. In spring males and females drum on hard, dead trees and call frequently. This species’ habit of flaking off bark when foraging leaves tree trunks with a patchwork appearance of dark outer bark and lighter inner bark, a good indication that woodpeckers are around.
- Pico Tridáctilo Americano (Spanish)
- Pic à dos rayé (French)
- Cool Facts
- The American Three-toed Woodpecker’s small stature is deceptive. One study of its musculature and skeleton revealed that this woodpecker can deliver especially powerful blows. It’s been suggested this is due to the evolutionary loss of the fourth toe—an unusual trait shared only by the Eurasian Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. With only three toes, these species may be able to lean farther away from the tree and thereby hit the tree harder than other woodpeckers, all of which have four toes.
- The American Three-toed Woodpecker breeds farther north than any other American woodpecker. The closely related Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker is the only woodpecker in the world whose range extends farther north.
- The American Three-toed Woodpecker’s range overlaps closely with the range of spruce trees. The birds are not restricted to feeding or nesting in spruce trees—although they do capitalize on spruce bark beetle outbreaks when they happen.
- American Three-toed Woodpeckers are opportunistic feeders and travel widely to take advantage of outbreaks of beetles. During the major Dutch elm disease outbreak of the 1950s through the 1970s (which was spread by a bark beetle), American Three-toed Woodpeckers showed up far to the south of their normal range.
- The "Three-toed Woodpecker" was split in 2003 into the American Three-toed and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers. The two species are nearly identical in appearance, but differ in mitochondrial DNA sequences and in voice.