A3TW Life History Characteristics

Today, I’m thinking about American three-toed woodpeckers, but with a jeep in need of repair, I can’t really go looking for them. I’m hoping to do an overnight weekend trip to Ely, MN with my boyfriend and check out Tomahawk Rd. early in the morning after we stay there. (I also finally want to go to Steger and pick out a pair of mukluks!)

Here in NE Minnesota, we’re most likely to encounter the bacatus subspecies. The old range map (cover photo) from Birds of North America used to show a winter (Oct through mid-Apr.) dispersal range with a dotted line. The caption hasn’t been updated, though, and still mentions this winter range, as well as further south movements during irruptions, perhaps like the observation 2 years ago from northern WI. In the text, it’s described as a “rare, erratic winter resident to…ne. and n.-central Minnesota (casually to nw. and central Minnesota)” (Janssen 1984). There’s a note in Birds of North America that they occupy “more open areas in winter.”

Why does this species irrupt?

“Irruptions associated with fires, large-scale insect outbreaks (spruce budworm, Choristoneura fumiferana), or disease (Dutch elm disease, Ceratocystis ulmi; West and Speirs 1959 , Yunick 1985). In North America, irruptions attributed to a lack of insect prey on normal range, or to overpopulation following an insect outbreak.” – Short 1982

Interestingly, the species also breeds in MN sometimes.

“Also rare or occasional breeder in appropriate habitat in ne. Minnesota (has bred in Superior National Forest, Cook Co. [Eckert 1981a], potentially as far south as Itasca State Park, St. Louis Co.)…” – Janssen 1984

It’s possible that individuals that irrupt in winter will stick around to breed.


Janssen, R. B. 1984. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press.

Leonard Jr., David L.. (2001). American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna-org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/Species-Account/bna/species/attwoo1

Short, L. L. 1982. Woodpeckers of the world. Monogr. Ser. 4, Greenville: Delaware Mus. Nat. Hist.

Yunick, R. P. 1985. A review of recent irruptions of the Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker in eastern North America. J. Field Ornithol. no. 56:138-152.

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