Lewis' Woodpecker
A Little Story About Habitat Change


Lewis' Woodpecker
Photo by Steve Caldwell
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Lewis' Woodpecker eating a bug
Photo by Pete Murray
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About 150 years ago, old-growth Western Hemlock-Western Red Cedar-Douglas Fir forest covered the Puget Sound lowlands down to the shoreline. That habitat supported an ecosystem that vanished from the region as loggers cut all of the woods. Some of the birds eliminated from Vashon by early in the 20th Century include Spotted Owl and Northern Goshawk. The populations of many other species fell considerably. Often, many forget that a whole new group of animals benefited for a time from the changes. The cycle has turned already and new changes made the ecosystem of the early to mid 20th Century in the Puget Sound area a fading memory.

The endless logging of earlier times created a landscape of regenerating forests. The fire regime changed from a few fires every two or three hundred years in the region to many human-caused fires. Many bird species moved in to take advantage of the new habitat. One of these species was the colorful Lewis' Woodpecker, first described by Lewis and Clark in eastern Washington. By the early 1900's they migrated through Puget Sound regularly and some stopped to colonize the area. Here are some of the comments of early Washington ornithologists:

Jewett notes: "In our experience it is seen more frequently in burned areas in the forest than in any other habitat; the blackened standing dead stubs afford it nesting sites, and as a rule a considerable variety of plant and insect life is available for food." Rathburn writes of the Lewis' Woodpecker west of the Cascades: "In western Washington this woodpecker nests in June. Almost invariably the excavation for its nesting place is in a dead tree, the trunk of which is more or less blackened by fire, and this may be one reason why the bird is partial to old burns."

Another writer, Earl Larrison, picked out Lewis' Woodpecker as one of many "interesting" species for Vashon Island. His book covered bird life in the area in the 1940's. As far as I know, that is the only record of their existence for Vashon, and I would appreciate any one who has heard of them being here or seen the birds themselves contacting me with the information.

The Lewis' Woodpecker is gone now from the Puget Sound area and Vashon. The forests regenerated in areas that remained rural. Fire management caught most fires before they left significant burned areas. Logging practices changed from selecting out preferred types of trees to clear cutting whole patches. No snags with potential spots for nesting holes were left behind. Other areas became farms, industrial parks and cities. Often the European Starling, that aggressive invader and stealer of nesting holes, gets the blame for the loss of the Lewis' Woodpecker, Western Bluebird and other hole nesters from our region. That theory fails to work because the Lewis' Woodpecker and Western Bluebird were already in decline in the 1950's and almost gone by the 1960's when the first starlings moved into the area. Habitat change brought these birds to Vashon and habitat change sent them away again.