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American Three-toed Woodpecker

Picoides dorsalis
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

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).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

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).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 10

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.

Life History

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.

American Three-toed Woodpecker American Three-toed Woodpecker. Picoides dorsalis
© David Brislance
See caption below Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the American Three-toed Woodpecker in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

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.

See caption below Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the American Three-toed Woodpecker in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

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Pie chart showing summary statistics of records by breeding status category Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the American Three-toed Woodpecker in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed4 (0.1%)1 (0.0%)
Probable0 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Possible7 (0.1%)3 (0.1%)
Observed0 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Total11 (0.2%)4 (0.2%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the American Three-toed Woodpecker observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding Habitat

Leonard (2001) suggested that the American Three-toed Woodpecker prefers spruce, whereas the Black-backed Woodpecker uses spruce and other coniferous forests. In Michigan, Vermont, and Canada, breeding habitat is associated with black spruce, tamarack, balsam fir, mixed-conifer forest, and riparian willow thickets (Leonard 2001). Occupied territories are commonly in areas of disturbance, mainly those associated with forest fire, wind, disease, or flooding, such as from beaver activity (Figure 4).

Preferred breeding habitat was generally described by Roberts (1932) as older, dense conifer forests. Cadman et al. (1987) in Ontario emphasized coniferous woodlands that tended toward wet conditions found in bogs.

Hoover and Wills (1984) estimated a minimum habitat area of 1,000 acres to maintain a minimum viable population of 20 individuals. Goggans et al. (1988) found that each pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers required over 500 acres of montane, old-growth mixed conifer or lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) forests. Based on these findings, both suggest a sensitivity to forest area size.

See caption below Figure 4.

Typical breeding habitat of the American Three-toed Woodpecker in Minnesota (© Gerald J. Niemi).

Population Abundance

Partners in Flight estimated the North American population at 1.1 million breeding adults and a Minnesota population of 200 (Partners in Flight 2017). Environment Canada (2014) estimated a wide range of 500,000 to 5,000,000 adults. MNBBA did not include a population estimate because of too few detections.

The federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) in North America indicated that trend estimates for all states, provinces, and survey-wide were unreliable. Environment Canada (2014) reinforced the lack of reliable data for this species in Canada, but the BBS and Christmas Bird Counts combined suggested moderate increases in the population since 1970. In contrast, Partners in Flight estimated a 27% decline in its North American population from 1970 to 2014 (Rosenberg et al. 2016).

No individuals were counted during the MNBBA point counts in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or in other areas within its limited range. Only 1 American Three-toed Woodpecker has been detected during the National Forest Bird Monitoring Program in either the Chippewa or Superior National Forests between 1991 and 2016, despite more than 20,000 10-minute point counts and over 3,500 hours of sampling. Interestingly, the 1 detection was made in the Superior National Forest in 2011 by a keen field observer, Matti Häkkilä. Häkkilä is a native of Finland and was very familiar with the call note of the species. Generally, this species has a very secretive behavior and minimal vocalizations, which render it more difficult to detect in short surveys.


The American Three-toed Woodpecker has a moderate Continental Concern Score of 10/20 (Rosenberg et al. 2016). The species is listed as a Regional Forester Sensitive Species by the U.S. Forest Service in the Superior National Forest. It is also listed by many states or by other federal agencies where it occurs (Leonard 2001). Environment Canada (2014) includes the American Three-toed Woodpecker as a priority species in several Bird Conservation Regional Strategies. The organization emphasized that trends in this species should be closely followed and that “timber harvesting, fragmentation, rapid cutting rotations, fire suppression, and salvage logging have all been shown to have negative influences on the species.”

Modeling studies on increased forest harvesting and management in Minnesota predicted a decline in this species if there was a substantial increase in logging in the most northern forest regions (Niemi and Hanowski 1992). As previously noted, the American Three-toed Woodpecker may be area sensitive as well.

The National Audubon Society (2015) and Langham et al. (2015) in their review of climate sensitivity for North American bird species labeled the American Three-toed Woodpecker as “climate threatened.” They predicted the species’ winter range would decline 44% by 2080.

In summary, a better understanding of this rare woodpecker will require a much greater focus on the management of the fire-dominated ecosystem that naturally occurred in the northern forests of Minnesota. The species’ use of wet bog habitats, which are difficult to survey, and its sensitivity to forest patch size also need to be considered. Observers becoming more familiar with the species’ vocalizations during the breeding season would improve the detection of the species.

  • Cadman, Michael D., Donald A. Sutherland, Gregor G. Beck, Denis Lepage, and Andrew R. Couturier, eds. 2007. The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001–2005. Toronto: Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature.

  • Cadman, Michael D., Paul F. J. Eagles, and Frederick M. Helleiner, eds. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. Waterloo, Ontario: University of Waterloo Press.

  • Chartier, Allen T., Jennifer J. Baldy, and John M. Brenneman, eds. 2013. Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas II. Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Nature Center.

  • Cutright, Noel, Bettie R. Harriman, and Robert W. Howe, eds. 2006. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin. Waukesha: Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, Inc.

  • Eckert, Kim R. 1981. “First Minnesota Nesting Record of Northern Three-toed Woodpecker.” Loon 53: 221–223.

  • Environment Canada. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey – Canadian Trends Website. Data-version 2012. Gatineau, Quebec: Environment Canada.

  • Goggans, Rebecca, Rita D. Dixon, and L. Claire Seminara. 1988. Habitat Use by Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

  • Green, Janet C., and Robert B. Janssen. 1975. Minnesota Birds: Where, When and How Many. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hatch, Philo L. 1892. First Report: Accompanied with Notes on the Birds of Minnesota. The Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota Zoological Series. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith Printers.

  • Heinselman, Miron L. 1973. “Fire in the Virgin Forests of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota.” Journal of Quaternary Research 3: 329–382.

  • Hertzel, Anthony X., and Robert B. Janssen. 1998. County Nesting Records of Minnesota Birds. Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers, no 2. Minneapolis: The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Hoover, Robert L., and Dale L. Wills. 1984. Managing Forested Lands for Wildlife. Denver: Colorado Division of Wildlife and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region.

  • Janssen, Robert B. 1987. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Langham, Gary M., Justin G. Schuetz, Trisha Distler, Candan U. Soykan, and Chad Wilsey. 2015. “Conservation Status of North American Birds in the Face of Future Climate Change.” PLoS One 10: e0135350. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135350

  • Leonard, David L., Jr. 2001. “American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis).” The Birds of North America, edited by Paul G. Rodewald. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from the Birds of North America: doi: 10.2173/bna.588

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2016. “American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis).” Minnesota Biological Survey: Breeding Bird Locations.

  • National Audubon Society. 2015. Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report: A Primer for Practitioners. Version 1.3. New York: National Audubon Society.

  • Niemi, Gerald J., and JoAnn M. Hanowski. 1992. “Bird Populations.” In The Patterned Peatlands of Minnesota, edited by H. E. Wright Jr., Barbara A. Coffin, and Norman E. Aaseng, 111–129. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database [Online].

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Judith A. Kennedy, Randy Dettmers, Robert P. Ford, Debra Reynolds, John D. Alexander, Carol J. Beardmore, Peter J. Blancher, Roxanne E. Bogart, Gregory S. Butcher, Alaine F. Camfield, Andrew Couturier, Dean W. Demarest, Wendy E. Easton, Jim J. Giocomo, Rebecca Hylton Keller, Anne E. Mini, Arvind O. Panjabi, David N. Pashley, Terrell D. Rich, Janet M. Ruth, Henning Stabins, Jessica Stanton, and Tom Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.