- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular but casual summer and winter visitant, primarily restricted to extreme northern Minnesota forests. The American Three-toed Woodpecker was rare during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The American Three-toed Woodpecker is the most northerly distributed woodpecker in North America. It is found across the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, south in the Rocky Mountains to Arizona and New Mexico. This species is found in low abundance throughout its breeding range (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 by Partners in Flight; listed by the U.S. Forest Service as a Regional Forester Sensitive Species.
Southward movements from northern Minnesota and Canada into northeastern, north-central, and northwestern Minnesota in October are regularly reported; the birds leave these regions by mid-April.
Primarily a specialist on bark beetles in the family Scolytidae but also consumes larvae of wood-boring beetles gathered while pecking and scaling the bark of trees.
Excavates a hole in trees of many different species.
The American Three-toed Woodpecker is an extremely rare permanent resident of northern Minnesota. It is a tame and quiet species compared with its closely related congener the Black-backed Woodpecker. The American Three-toed Woodpecker was formerly considered to be one species with a Holarctic distribution. Recent genetic evidence and its voice have separated it from the Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) found in Europe and Asia.
Hatch included the American Three-toed Woodpecker in his 1892 report based on “rumor having never had the bird in my own hands for identification.” Roberts’s (1932) record of observations for this species was limited to 10 localities and usually of single birds. He describes the species as frequently encountered only on the “Mesabi Iron Range . . . in the vicinity of Ely and Hibbing.” Roberts did not document any nesting of this species in Minnesota but did report observations of a pair with 1 young male nearly fully grown in July 1902 in Itasca State Park. Roberts’s most southerly record for this species was of an individual observed at Cambridge, Isanti County, during the winter of 1915.
More than 40 years later, Green and Janssen (1975) identified the woodpecker’s summer range in Minnesota as “within 50 miles of the Canadian border from the Northwest Angle to Cook County and in Itasca State Park.” The first confirmed nesting record of the species was recorded by Eckert in 1981 along the Gunflint Trail in Cook County. Janssen (1987) suggested the summer records “indicate that it is an occasional breeder in extreme northern parts of the state.” He noted the most southerly record in Minnesota was from Washington County in December 1981. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) added St. Louis County to the confirmed nesting records for the species since 1970.
The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) recorded 5 breeding season locations of the American Three-toed Woodpecker during their county inventories, but they had not yet covered northern Beltrami, Koochiching, or Lake of the Woods Counties (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016). Their locations included 2 each in Cook and northern Lake Counties, and 1 in northern Itasca County.
The MNBBA documented 14 records in 11 blocks distributed from Lake of the Woods to Cook County (Figure 2). This represented less than 1% of all blocks surveyed or priority blocks sampled in Minnesota (Figure 3; Table 1). Nesting was confirmed in 4 blocks, including 3 in Lake County and 1 in southern Lake of the Woods County.
The historical status of the American Three-toed Woodpecker in Minnesota is unclear. It is unknown whether the species regularly nests in Minnesota. Hatch (1892) never observed or collected the species, and Roberts (1932) had very limited encounters. The lack of coverage in the extreme northern coniferous forests of Minnesota during the middle to late 19th century and in much of the 20th century limits any conclusions. Historically, given that fire frequency and the breadth of forest fires was greater before European settlement in Minnesota (Heinselman 1973), it is possible that populations of this species were higher during this period, because it is known to use areas disturbed by forest fires. Leonard (2001), in his review of the American Three-toed Woodpecker in North America, stated that there were “no documented extirpations or range expansion for North America.”
The American Three-toed Woodpecker was not listed by Cutright et al. (2006) in Wisconsin or by Chartier et al. (2013) in Michigan. Ontario reported no differences in the species’ distribution from its first atlas, in 1981 to 1985, to its second atlas, in 2001 to 2005 (Cadman 2007). In both Ontario atlases, Cadman et al. (1987, 2007) emphasized that the species can easily be overlooked because of its quiet nature and the difficulty of accessing its wet breeding habitat.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.