Black-Backed Woodpecker

Picoides arcticus
Range Map

North America hosts two species of woodpecker with only three toes on each foot. One is the aptly named American Three-Toed Woodpecker, and the other is our Black-Backed Woodpecker. Both species profit from large-scale beetle infestations and fires in coniferous forests, but where the American Three-Toed Woodpecker finds its meals by flaking off loose bark, the Black-Backed drills deeper in search of boring beetle larva and such.

Twice I searched in vain for this bird while I traveled through the intermountain west of the USA. My first failed attempt was in 2014, while I visited the eastern Sierra-Nevada region near June Lake. I found a burned out wooded area where these birds had been seen several months earlier near US-395, and I hiked out to investigate. I enjoyed meeting several species of birds on my search, including Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Green-Tailed Towhees, but nary a hint of Black-Backed Woodpeckers.

One year later, while exploring the Jackson Hole area in Wyoming, I hunted for these birds in a burn area near Whitegrass Ranch Road. Again, I found some nice species, including Williamson’s Sapsuckers, American Three-Toed Woodpeckers, and Townsend’s Solitaires. But the object of my search eluded me.

It was not until I returned to the eastern Sierra-Nevada region in 2017 that I finally found these birds near Mammoth California. My scouting of the region led me to two locations, each five miles apart, where I finally met them.

Studies show there are two, or possibly four populations of these birds in North America. One group lives in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, and another occupies northern Boreal forests in Canada. Another isolated group lives in the Black-Hills of South Dakota, and yet another lives in the northern Rocky Mountains. Most scientists believe there is still much to learn about this rare, and possibly endangered species. At present, they are considered monotypic. But that status may be revised in the future.

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