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Range Expansion of the Pileated Woodpecker in North Dakota

Pileated Woodpecker Observations Within the Agassiz Lake Plain


Pre-1900

Literature from the late 1800's failed to mention the occurrence of the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota. Journals chronicling the expeditions of M. Lewis and W. Clark from 1804 to 1806 (Reid and Gannon 1999), J. J. Audubon and E. Harris in 1843 (Harris 1851, Street 1948, McDermott 1951), F. V. Hayden in 1856 and 1860 (Baird et al. 1858, Hayden 1863), and J. A. Allen in 1873 (Allen 1874) up the Missouri River from St. Louis, Missouri, to Montana did not contain observations of the pileated woodpecker. In 1873 and 1874, E. Coues (1878), an eminent ornithologist, traveled with the United States Northern Boundary Commission as it surveyed 1360 km along the international boundary line from the Red River to the Rocky Mountains. Coues did not encounter the pileated woodpecker during the mission. A list of 67 species found in 1879 in Pembina, Pembina County, did not include the pileated woodpecker (Abbott 1880). E. T. Judd (1917) compiled an extensive list of bird species he encountered south of the Turtle Mountains and north of Devils Lake in the 1890's; the pileated woodpecker was not mentioned. Records of avian species observed during explorations for railroad lines between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean in the mid-1800's, compiled by S. F. Baird, J. Cassin, and G. N. Lawrence (Baird et al. 1858), included no references to the pileated woodpecker in the Dakota Territory.

1900-1950

There are very few references to the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota from literature published in the early 1900's (Fig. 1). Below, I include accounts by two authors, who reported the presence of the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota, followed by accounts of three authors, who did not record the species in their respective bird surveys.

H. V. Williams (1926) published a list of breeding bird species along the Red River Valley, based on specimens collected near Grafton, Walsh County, between 1900 and 1926 (both he and his father were taxidermists). He described the pileated woodpecker as "a rare straggler this far west." Only two specimens, collected in 1905 and 1915, respectively, were known to Williams. Stewart (1975) reported an indicated pair (defined as a territorial male or pair) prior to 1950 near Grafton.

V. Bailey (1926) did not list the pileated woodpecker as a bird species one would expect to find in the Turtle Mountains. A series of 15 articles on bird observations in the Devils Lake area in the 1900's by F. M. Bailey (1915, 1916, 1918a-e, 1919a-e, 1920a-c) contain no mention of the pileated woodpecker. G. W. Monson (1934) observed birds within 5.2 to 7.8 km² (2 to 3 mi²) in Berlin and Harwood townships, Cass County, from 1925 to 1932. The Sheyenne River flows through western Harwood Township and empties into the Red River in the northeastern corner of the township. Monson did not observe any individuals of pileated woodpecker.

The National Audubon Society has organized annual Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) since 1901. A count covers a circle with a 24-km diameter and occurs during a single day within two weeks of 25 December. All birds seen or heard within the circle are counted. The first CBC in North Dakota was held in Fargo, Cass County, in 1909 (Bird-Lore 1910), and was followed by counts in numerous other localities throughout the state. No pileated woodpeckers were observed during 1900-1950 in these CBC's (Fig. 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2
Figure 2.  Number of pileated woodpecker seen or heard during North Dakota Christmas Bird Counts from 1900 through 2000.

1951-1985

By the late 1900's, year-round sightings of the pileated woodpecker in the Agassiz Lake Plain and the Pembina Hills became plentiful (Fig. 3). In a general statement, Stewart (1975) reported that adults were observed during the nesting season along the Red River in Richland, Cass, Grand Forks, and Walsh counties, and along tributaries of the Red River (the Park River in Walsh County, the Tongue River in Pembina County, the Pembina River in Cavalier County, and the Sheyenne River in Ransom County). Actual records from Stewart's research are presented below, by county. In 1953, one pileated woodpecker was observed along the Red River in summer (G. B. Berkey, North Dakota Birding Society, Upham, North Dakota, pers. comm.). In Pembina County, an indicated pair was seen between 1950 and 1972 (Stewart 1975), and one or more pileated woodpeckers were seen in 1975 and 1982 (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In Cavalier County, an indicated pair was seen in 1962 (Stewart 1975, Faanes and Andrew 1983). In both Walsh and Grand Forks counties, an indicated pair was seen between 1950 and 1972 (Stewart 1975). In Grand Forks County, pileated woodpeckers were seen in 1962 and in most years during 1972-1985 (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In Traill County, the pileated woodpecker was seen at least once each year in 1971, 1973, 1975, 1979 to 1981, and 1983 to 1984 (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In Cass County, an indicated pair was seen between 1950 and 1972 (Stewart 1975), and the pileated woodpecker was sighted at least once each year in 1961 and 1963-1985 (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In Richland County, indicated pairs were seen four times between 1950 and 1972 (Stewart 1975), and one or more woodpeckers were seen in 1980 and 1985 (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In Ransom County within the Agassiz Lake Plain, an indicated pair was seen once between 1950 and 1972 (Stewart 1975), and at least once in 1984 (North Dakota Natural Heritage Inventory 1984).

Figure 3
Figure 3.  Location and frequency of pileated woodpecker sightings in North Dakota, 1951 through 1985. Solid circles represent exact locations of sightings. Open triangles represent unknown locations of sightings in Pembina and Richland counties and along the Red and Sheyenne rivers.

For the first 54 years (1909 through 1962) of the Fargo CBC, no pileated woodpeckers were observed. The first sighting of a pileated woodpecker on a CBC was a single bird in 1963 in the Fargo-Moorhead (Clay County, Minnesota) count (Fig. 2) (Audubon Field Notes 1964). During 1963-1985, a total of 61 pileated woodpeckers were recorded on CBC's, with the majority (45) from Fargo-Moorhead (Bird-Lore 1901-1940; Audubon Field Notes 1964-1968, Randall 1969-1986). During 1963-1985, an average of 1.96 woodpeckers was seen per year on the Fargo CBC. The Grand Forks-East Grand Forks CBC, Grand Forks County and Polk County (Minnesota), was initiated in 1955 (BirdSource 2000a). No pileated woodpeckers were seen until 1972, when one was seen. During 1972-1985, an average of 0.36 woodpeckers was seen per year. The Mayville-Portland CBC, Traill County, began in 1979 (BirdSource 2000a); the first pileated woodpecker was seen in 1979 (Fig. 2). In the three years in which a CBC was held during 1979 to 1981, an average of 2.3 pileated woodpeckers was seen per year. The McLeod CBC, Ransom County, was held for only three years (BirdSource 2000a), but one or two pileated woodpeckers were seen each year.

1986-Present

The number of pileated woodpeckers observed in the Agassiz Lake Plain and Pembina Hills increased after 1985 (Fig. 4). In Pembina County, the pileated woodpecker was seen at least once per year in 1988 to 2001 (Berkey 1993a; Berkey 1994a; Martin 1995; BirdSource 2000a; G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.; L. D. Igl, U.S. Geological Survey, Jamestown, North Dakota, pers. comm.; G. P. Kalis, Walhalla, North Dakota, pers. comm.; D. O. Lambeth, North Dakota Birding Society, Grand Forks, North Dakota, pers. comm.). In Cavalier County, a pileated woodpecker was seen in 2000 (D. O. Lambeth, pers. comm.). In Walsh County, the pileated woodpecker has been seen intermittently over the past 10 years (R. L. Kreil, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Bismarck, North Dakota, pers. comm.), and was seen twice in 2000 (D. O. Lambeth, pers. comm.; R. E. Martin, North American Birds regional editor, Sawyer, North Dakota, pers. comm.). In Grand Forks County, the pileated woodpecker was seen at least once annually in 1986 to 2001 (Berkey 1994a; Hoberg 1997; Sauer et al. 1999; BirdSource 2000a; Ellingson 2000; G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.; D. O. Lambeth, pers. comm.). The pileated woodpecker is so common in Grand Forks County now that many sightings go unreported (R. E. Martin, pers. comm.). In Traill County, the pileated woodpecker has been seen at least once annually in 1986, 1989, and 1991 to 2000 (Berkey 1993a, 1994a; Martin 1995; Sauer et al. 1999; BirdSource 2000a; Ellingson 2000; G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.; K. K. Sedivec, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, pers. comm.). In Cass County, the pileated woodpecker has been sighted at least once annually in 1986 to 2001 (Sauer et al. 1999; BirdSource 2000a; G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In northeastern Richland County, one pileated woodpecker was observed in 1986 and one in 1992 (Sauer et al. 1999).

Figure 4
Figure 4.  Location and frequency of pileated woodpecker sightings in North Dakota, 1986 to present. Solid circles represent exact locations of sightings. Open triangles represent unknown locations of sightings in Pembina, Ransom, and Richland counties and along the Sheyenne River.

Based on CBC information from 1901 through 2000, numbers of pileated woodpecker present in the state during December are increasing both in and west of the Agassiz Lake Plain (Fig. 2). During 1901 to 1985, 62 pileated woodpeckers were observed in North Dakota CBC's, compared to 177 during 1986 to 2000 (Randall 1969-1999, BirdSource 2000a). During 1963 to 1985, the average number of pileated woodpeckers seen during the Fargo CBC was 2.0, compared to 6.3 during 1986 to 2000. In Grand Forks, an average of 0.4 birds was observed during 1972 to 1985, compared to 2.9 birds during 1986 to 2000. In the Icelandic State Park CBC, an average of 2.9 birds was observed during 1991 to 2000. In the Mayville-Portland CBC, an average of 2.3 pileated birds were seen during 1979 to 1981, compared to 1.0 pileated woodpeckers during 1991 to 2000.

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