Woodpecker named for Meriwether Lewis

Birds: Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) [1] might look like a woodpecker, when it is standing still, but it forages like a flycatcher and flies like a crow. And its coloration? Those colors are all its own: with a pink belly, gray collar, and dark, iridescent-green back, this woodpecker is unlike any other member of its family. The gray collar looks like a grey and white stole draped over its shoulders. And acrobatics? The bird grabs insects in midair, flying with slow and deep wing beats. It builds its nests in open pine forests, woodland margins, and burned-out forest stumps, yet it wanders around for food like a nomad. The bird will forage far afield of it nests searching for nuts during breeding season.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers might be easiest to find during the breeding season (Late April–July) when they are less nomadic. In open Ponderosa Pine forests and burned scrub forests the woodpecker is a bulky, flicker-sized bird perched on bare branches, fence posts, or even telephone wires. They are not very vocal, but their aerial maneuvers may catch the eye of a birdwatcher, as they did for us on the Columbia Hills Historic State Park in Klickitat County Washington.

  • The Lewis’s Woodpecker seldom, if ever, digs into trees for wood-boring insects. Instead, it gleans insects from the bark, or more commonly, catches them in mid-flight. It spends long periods watching for flying insects from the top of a pole or dead tree, and then flies out to catch them.
  • The Lewis’s Woodpecker was described by Alexander Wilson [3] in 1811 and is named after Meriwether Lewis who first identified the bird in 1805, while on his famous westward expedition with William Clark.
  • Like other woodpeckers, hatchling Lewis’s Woodpeckers are naked without a single bit of down, unlike songbirds, which have at least a bit of fluffy down on their head and back when they hatch.

Photo of a woodpecker with red breast and blackwings pecking on a tree

Picture by A. Cruickshank © Alan Cruickshank/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Meriwether Lewis Sighting

On May 27, 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was camped in the vicinity of modern Kamiah, Idaho, on the Clearwater River. The men were biding their time until they could navigate the snow and ice-choked Indian trails across the Bitterroot Mountains. Lewis spotted a bird, which he described as “new to science.” He shot the bird and journaled some observations. His claim was full of Lewis’s typical mixture of minute detail and genuine admiration. :

The Black woodpecker which I have frequently mentioned and which is found in most parts of the roky Mountains as well as the Western and S.W. Mountains, I had never an opportunity of examining untill a few days since when we killed and preserved several of them. This bird is about the size of the lark woodpecker or the turtle dove, tho’ it’s wings are longer than either of those birds.


The beak is black, one inch long, reather wide at the base, somewhat curved, and sharply pointed; the chaps are of equal length. Around the base of the beak including the eye and a small part of the throat is of a fine crimson red. The neck and as low as the croop in front is of an iron grey. The belly and breast is a curious mixture of white and blood red which has much the appearance of having been artificially painted or stained of that colour. The red reather predominates.


The top of the head back, sides, upper surface of the wings and tail are black, with a glossey tint of green in a certain exposure to the light. The under side of the wings and tail are of a sooty black. It has ten feathers in the tail, sharply pointed, and those in the centre reather longest, being 2-1/2 inches in length. The tongue is barbed, pointed, and of an elastic cartelaginous substance. The eye is moderately large, puple black and iris of a dark yellowish brown.


This bird in it’s actions when flying resembles the small redheaded woodpecker common to the Atlantic states; its note also somewhat resembles that bird. The pointed tail seems to assist it in seting with more eas or retaining & its resting position against the perpendicular side of a tree. The legs and feet are black and covered with wide imbricated [overlapping] scales. It has four toes on each foot of which two are in rear and two in front; the nails are much curved long and remarkably keen or sharply pointed. It feeds on bugs worms and a variety of insects. [2]

Lewis’s Specimen

19th-century scientific illustration of a woodpecker with black wings and red breast

Lewis’s Woodpecker engraving by Alexander Lawson

Lewis stuffed and dried the woodpecker specimens, which he carried home. He gave one to Charles Willson Peale for his museum in Philadelphia. The pioneer American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson (1766 – 1813), studied the specimen and made a drawing of it. Wilson admired the collar or stole around its neck as much as ornithologists today, when he gave the bird its common name and its first scientific name, Picus torquatus, which is Latin for “woodpecker with a necklace.” Later the British zoologist William Swainson (1789-1855) reclassified the woodpecker in a new genus. Today modern birdwatchers know it as Melanerpes lewis, which literally means “Lewis’s black creeper.”

Image result for lewis woodpecker in flight

Seeing the birds that Lewis & Clark “discovered” and reading the chronology in his journals may be an inspiration for further study of his bio-diverse findings. They have been deeply studied by ornithologists and naturalists over the years, but then again, it might be interesting with some fresh eyes. Stay tuned.


[1]  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Lewiss_Woodpecker/overview 

[2]  http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/1067

[3] Wilson is featured in another Birds Post: https://henryehooper.blog/birds-wilsons-warbler/