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Range Expansion of the Pileated Woodpecker in North Dakota

Jill A. Dechant


Abstract: Natural history writings from explorers such as M. Lewis, W. Clark, J. J. Audubon, S. F. Baird, and E. Coues failed to mention the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) in North Dakota throughout the 1800's. The first published reference to the species was in the early 1900's in the valley of the Red River of the North, part of the Agassiz Lake Plain of eastern North Dakota. Sightings increased in the Agassiz Lake Plain in the mid-1900's but remained rare west of the Agassiz Lake Plain until the late 1900's. Ornithologists suggest that the species has recently established small, permanent populations in the Turtle Mountains, Devils Lake area, and along the Sheyenne River, especially in the Sheyenne National Grassland. I present information that supports the idea that the pileated woodpecker is establishing populations in the aforementioned areas and is moving even farther west. I also document the presence of the pileated woodpecker along the James River and the first record for Stutsman County.

Key words: Dryocopus pileatus, North Dakota, pileated woodpecker, range expansion.


Table of Contents


Introduction

The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is a year-round resident of deciduous or coniferous forests in southern Canada and in the eastern and northwestern United States (Bull and Jackson 1995). The species relies on stands of mature trees for nesting, roosting, and foraging. The pileated woodpecker excavates nest cavities in dead trees, roosts in hollow trees, and forages for insects on downed woody material and on standing live and dead trees. Numbers of pileated woodpecker in the eastern United States prior to 1900 were diminished by tree-clearing activities and shooting (Bull and Jackson 1995). Regrowth of forests, the introduction of Dutch elm disease (Graphium ulmi), which results in dead and dying trees, and federal and state legislation granting protection to the species have contributed to a population increase (Nicholls 1994, Bull and Jackson 1995).

Prior to about the 1950's, the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota was primarily confined to the Agassiz Lake Plain region of eastern North Dakota (Stewart 1975). The Agassiz Lake Plain is the area of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota that is drained by the Red River of the North (hereafter Red River) and its tributaries and that was formed by Glacial Lake Agassiz 9,000 to 13,000 years ago (Chapman et al. 1998; Fig. 1). The river valleys provide suitable woodpecker habitat because they support stands of mature trees, such as bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), American elm (Ulmus americana), basswood (Tilia americana), and green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). Historical observations of pileated woodpecker occurred, and continue to occur regularly, along the Red River and its tributaries and in the Pembina Hills. More recent observations have occurred in the Turtle Mountains, in the Devils Lake area, and near the James, Missouri, and Sheyenne rivers.

Figure 1
Figure 1.  Geographical areas in North Dakota mentioned in the text, and location and frequency of pileated woodpecker sightings in North Dakota from 1900 through 1950.

I describe the historical range of the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota and present previously unpublished information that documents the range expansion of the pileated woodpecker in eastern North Dakota. Several esteemed ornithologists failed to document the presence of the pileated woodpecker west of the Agassiz Lake Plain in the 1800's and early 1900's. Since the 1990's, however, the pileated woodpecker has been sighted as far west as Mandan, Morton County, on the Missouri River.

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.

Evidence of Nesting

Three nests have been documented in North Dakota, two along the Red River in Fargo and one along the Turtle River in Turtle River State Park, Grand Forks County. However, the pileated woodpecker is a secretive bird whose nest is not easily found. In 1973, J. F. Cassel, K. L. Lago, and M. B. Wyatt reported a nest cavity that contained two young (Stewart 1975; G. E. Nielsen, North Dakota Birding Society, Fargo, North Dakota, pers. comm.). In 1998, T. Hallett reported a pileated woodpecker nest cavity containing an unspecified number of young; this sighting was not confirmed but was deemed likely by experienced birdwatchers (G. E. Nielsen, pers. comm.). A probable North Dakota breeding event was documented in 1990 by R. H. O'Connor, again in Fargo (R. H. O'Connor, North Dakota Birding Society, Fargo, North Dakota, pers. comm.). One immature bird was being fed by adult pileated woodpeckers on the North Dakota side of the Red River. However, it was possible that the immature bird fledged from the Minnesota side of the Red River. In 2001, D. O. Lambeth reported that one male and one female bird fledged from a nest cavity in Turtle River State Park (D. O. Lambeth, pers. comm.). Another probable breeding event occurred in 2001 in Central Park, downtown Grand Forks (D. O. Lambeth, pers. comm.). A family group was seen, and the adult male fed a fledged young. Although nests have not been found in the Turtle Mountains, Devils Lake area, or the Sheyenne National Grassland, experienced birdwatchers suggest that breeding populations do exist in these areas (G. B. Berkey and R. E. Martin, pers. comm.).

Expansion Beyond the Agassiz Lake Plain

Sightings west of the Agassiz Lake Plain and Pembina Hills still are infrequent (Fig. 4, Table 1). In a breeding bird census of 130 legal quarter-sections in 1967, Stewart and Kantrud (1972) did not record any pileated woodpeckers. Censuses were conducted in townships in all counties along the Red River, in the Turtle Mountains, near Devils Lake, and in the Sheyenne National Grassland. During the 1992 and 1993 breeding seasons, Igl and Johnson (1997) repeated Stewart and Kantrud's 1967 survey. One pileated woodpecker was observed in Pembina County (L. D. Igl, pers. comm.). In northeastern North Dakota, the first pileated woodpecker was documented west of the Agassiz Lake Plain and Pembina Hills in 1985 at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, Benson County (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.). In southeastern North Dakota, the first pileated woodpecker was documented west of the Agassiz Lake Plain in 1966 at Fort Ransom, Ransom County (G. B. Berkey, pers. comm.).

DATE LOCATION OBSERVER(S) OBSERVATION
number of birds
Turtle Mountains
late 1980's, early 1990's Turtle Mountains Recreational Forest, Bottineau County D. T. Disrud one
1 February 1987 St. John, Rolette County D. L. Kubischta one
26 November 1993 Lake Upsilon, Rolette County H. Klein one
28 May 1994 Dalen Campground, Turtle Mountains, Recreational Forest, Bottineau County R. E. Martin, G. B. Berkey one calling and drumming
1 July 1994 International Peace Garden, Rolette County R. E. Martin, G. B. Berkey old diggings
29 May 1997 Turtle Mountains Wildlife Management Area, Bottineau County K. M. Fleming one
1998-2000 Lake Upsilon, Rolette County A. J. Lagasse year-round sightings of individuals and pairs, four in same tree at same time used a cavity for roosting
13 February 1999 Turtle Mountains Recreational Forest, Bottineau County R. E. Martin, H. C. Talkington, C. D. Ellingson one
1 April 2000 Turtle Mountains Recreational Forest, Bottineau County R. E. Martin, G. B. Berkey fresh diggings, no birds
18 June 2000 International Peace Garden, Rolette County R. E. Martin, C. D. Ellingson one
July 2000  International Peace Garden, Rolette County T. Drozdowski one
Sullys Hill/Devils Lake
8 April 1985 Sullys Hill, Benson County Iru and Ryan (full names unknown) one
10 December 1985 Sullys Hill, Benson County I. Nelson one
22 January 1986 Sullys Hill, Benson County L. Veikley one
23 March 1986 Sullys Hill, Benson County B. P. (full name unknown) one
26 April 1986 Sullys Hill, Benson County F. W. (full name unknown) one
Spring 1986 Sullys Hill, Benson County fide G. B. Berkey one
Winter 1986 Sullys Hill, Benson County fide G. B. Berkey two
Spring 1987 Sullys Hill, Benson County fide G. B. Berkey one
10 April 1988 Sullys Hill, Benson County V. Kurwat one female
20 January 1989 Sullys Hill, Benson County R.A. Hollevoet, G. Huschle one
21 March 1989 Sullys Hill, Benson County S. Kresl, G. Sekaniec, D. Lesischen one
24 May 1990 Sullys Hill, Benson County M. H. Sherfy one
22 July 1990 Devils Lake, Ramsey County fide G. B. Berkey two
29 November 1990 Sullys Hill, Benson County G. Swan one
Summer 1991 Sullys Hill, Benson County S. Kresl  
Summer 1992 Sullys Hill, Benson County S. Kresl  
20 September 1992 south shore of Devils Lake, 4.8 km east of Fort Totten, Benson County R. E. Martin, G. B. Berkey one
Summer 1993 Sullys Hill, Benson County T. LaFrance  
5 October 1995 Camp Grafton, Devils Lake, Ramsey County E. E. Freeberg one
9 October 1995 Sullys Hill, Benson County G. B. Berkey, R. E. Martin one
Spring 2000 Sullys Hill, Benson County fide R. E. Martin one
14 May 2000 Sullys Hill, Benson County D. H. Johnson one, calling
Sheyenne River
R. E. Stewart's reports of sightings occurred sometime between 1950 and 1972 near Kindred, Richland County R. E. Stewart indicated pair
near Sheyenne National Grassland, Richland County R. E. Stewart indicated pair
near Mirror Pool, Sheyenne National Grassland, Richland County R. E. Stewart indicated pair
Mirror Pool, Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County R. E. Stewart indicated pair
near Fort Ransom State Park, Ransom County R. E. Stewart indicated pair
4 August 1966 Fort Ransom, Ransom County fide G. B. Berkey one
30 December 1971 McLeod Christmas Bird Count (CBC), Ransom County   two
23 December 1972 McLeod CBC, Ransom County   one
26 October 1980 south of Lisbon, Ransom County fide G. B. Berkey one
29 December 1980 Richland County fide G. B. Berkey one
29 December 1980 McLeod CBC, Ransom County   two
20 June1984 Olson Wetland, Ransom County R. Nellermoe, R. A. Lambert  
25 June 1984 Sheyenne Springs Research Natural Area, Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County R. Nellermoe, R. A. Lambert evidence of breeding
6 April 1985 Sheyenne River, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey two
4 July 1985 Richland County fide G. B. Berkey four
24 June 1986 Richland County fide G. B. Berkey calling
20 June 1988 south of Fort Ransom, Ransom County fide G. B. Berkey one
1 July 1988 Sheyenne River, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey one
17 July 1988 Sheyenne River, Ransom and Richland counties R. E. Martin, G. B. Berkey 8 individuals calling or drumming/8 linear km
6 December 1988 south of Fort Ransom, Ransom County N. R. Shook one
Summer 1989 Sheyenne River, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey  
17 December 1989 Sheyenne National Grassland, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey one
2 June 1990 Sheyenne River, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey two
30  June 1990 Sheyenne River, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey one
27 May 1991 Mirror Pool, Sheyenne National Grassland, county unknown fide G. B. Berkey one
4 July 1991 south of Leonard, Ransom County fide G. B. Berkey one
5 November 1993 3.2 km south and 9.6 km west of Aneta, Sheyenne River, Griggs County C. Michalski one
April-May 1997 19.2 km south of Valley City, on County Road 21, Barnes County N. N. Doppler one
16 March 1999 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County J. A. Dechant, M. Winter two
16 June 1999 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County D. M. Scheiman one
21 June 1999 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County J. A. Dechant one
October 1999 19.2 km south of Valley City, on County Road 21, Barnes County N. N. Doppler one
30 October 1999 Fish Hatchery, Valley City, Barnes County N. R. Shook two
21 March 2000 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County J. A. Dechant, D. H. Johnson one
Spring 2000 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County S. M. Stahl adult seen in cavity during each of three visits
May 2000 Fish Hatchery, Valley City, Barnes County N. R. Shook one bird at each of two sightings
3 June 2000 near Fort Ransom State Park, Ransom County D. N. Svingen one
3 June 2000 Ransom County D. M. Scheiman one
6 June 2000 Sheyenne National Grassland, Ransom County D. M. Scheiman one
15-16 July 2000 Fish Hatchery, Valley City, Barnes County N. R. Shook one both days
Summer 2000 Sheyenne national Grassland, Ransom County B. R. Stotts at least five seen throughout summer
26 September 2000 Fish Hatchery, Valley City, Barnes County G. A. Knutsen one
30 September 2000 19.2 km south of Valley City, on County Road 21, Barnes County N. N. Doppler one
November 2001 3.2 km south of Valley City, Barnes County D. C. Pederson, G. K. Pederson one
James River
Spring 1985 McElroy Park, Jamestown, Stutsman County J. M. Legge one
Spring 1990 northwest of LaMoure, LaMoure County fide G. B. Berkey  
18 December 1998 Jamestown CBC, Stutsman County J. A. Dechant, P. A. Rabie, D. T. Burchill one female
Missouri River
30 November 1992 Mandan, Morton County P. Y. Carlson two

Turtle Mountains

The Turtle Mountains are heavily forested and dominated by quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) with secondary species of bur oak, green ash, balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), and paper birch (Betula papyrifera) (Stewart 1975). Eleven records of pileated woodpecker activity (three in the nonbreeding season, six in the breeding season, one year-round, one unknown) were reported in the Turtle Mountains. The breeding season was defined as March through August and the nonbreeding season from September through February. In seven of the sightings, one bird was seen during each visit. Excavations of cavities were reported in two records, and calling and drumming were observed in another record. Roosting and the presence of a group of four pileated woodpeckers were reported in one record. The May 1994, May 1997, February 1999, and April 2000 sightings occurred within 6.4 km of one another (R. E. Martin, pers. comm.). The pileated woodpecker might be resident in small numbers in the Turtle Mountains (Berkey 1994b). If so, the westernmost occurrence in North Dakota of resident pileated woodpeckers would be in the Turtle Mountains. The one sighting in Mandan, described below, is not considered to represent a resident population.

Devils Lake Area

The woodland community surrounding Devils Lake is dominated by bur oak, American elm, basswood, green ash, box elder, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, and paper birch (Stewart 1975). Twenty-two records of pileated woodpecker activity (8 in the nonbreeding season, 14 in the breeding season) have been reported in the Devils Lake area. A single bird was seen in each sighting except winter 1986 and July 1990, in which two birds were seen, and in the summers of 1991, 1992, and 1993, when numbers of woodpeckers were not recorded. The pileated woodpecker might be resident in small numbers in the Devils Lake area, as it is found regularly both at Sullys Hill and at Camp Grafton, Ramsey County (Berkey 1994b, Lambeth 1996).

Sheyenne River Valley

The Sheyenne River flows from northcentral to southeastern North Dakota, eventually discharging into the Red River north of Fargo (Fig. 1). Riparian vegetation is dominated by bur oak, hackberry, American elm, basswood, green ash, hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and quaking aspen (Stewart 1975). Forty-four records of pileated woodpecker activity (13 nonbreeding, 31 breeding) were reported along the Sheyenne River. Stewart (1975) wrote that the species "undoubtedly breeds … in the rich, wooded bottomlands along the Sheyenne River in northwestern Richland County and northeastern Ransom County." Numerous sightings in those counties attest to the likelihood of a breeding population. Most records of pileated woodpecker along the Sheyenne River Valley occurred within or near (within 16 km) the Sheyenne National Grassland in Richland and Ransom counties, and most observations in the Sheyenne National Grassland were near the Mirror Pool Wildlife Management Area. In addition to the sightings listed in Table 1 Bryan R. Stotts (U.S. Forest Service, Lisbon, North Dakota, pers. comm.) reported intermittently seeing family groups in the Mirror Pool area since the late 1990's.

The five northernmost records within the Sheyenne River Valley occurred in Griggs (Lambeth 1994) and Barnes counties (Ellingson 2000; N. R. Shook, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Valley City, North Dakota, pers. comm.). Five records exist from Fort Ransom, located on the Sheyenne River about 30 km west of the Agassiz Lake Plain. The counties in which seven records originated are unknown.

James River Valley

The James River flows south of, and roughly parallel to, the Sheyenne River but enters South Dakota in Dickey County. Riparian vegetation is dominated by American elm, green ash, and box elder (Stewart 1975). Three records (one in the nonbreeding season, two in the breeding season) of pileated woodpecker activity along the James River have been reported, two in or near Jamestown, Stutsman County, and one in LaMoure, LaMoure County.

Missouri River Valley

The Missouri River flows from northwestern to southcentral North Dakota and riparian vegetation is dominated by cottonwood (Populus deltoides) (Stewart 1975). The only sighting of the pileated woodpecker along the Missouri River occurred in Mandan, Morton County, where in November 1992, P. Y. Carlson observed a pair (Berkey 1993b).

New Record for Stutsman County

During the 1998-1999 winter, 15 coworkers and I observed a female pileated woodpecker along the James River, southeast of Jamestown. Presumably the same bird was seen intermittently from 10 December 1998 to 3 March 1999. It was observed feeding at bird feeders and perched on windowsills of two buildings belonging to the U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (hereafter, Center), on an oxbow east of the Center, and in trees along the James River. Habitat surrounding the Center buildings and paved roads consisted of ornamental conifers, lowland fields of seeded native grasses, upland areas of mixed tame and native grasses, wetlands, an oxbow, and the James River. The stretch of the James River near the Center is bordered by live and dead box elder, green ash, choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), and American elm. Many elms had Dutch elm disease. I recorded a female pileated woodpecker on the 1998 Jamestown CBC in the aforementioned oxbow. The above sighting is the first documented winter observation of a pileated woodpecker along the James River and the first observation of a pileated woodpecker on the Jamestown CBC, which has been held intermittently 31 times during 1922-1999 (Fig. 2). The sighting is the farthest west that a pileated woodpecker has been observed on CBC's.

Discussion

The pileated woodpecker is increasing throughout its range (Sauer et al. 1996, BirdSource 2000b) and is reoccupying areas not inhabited since the early 1900's (Mumford and Keller 1984, Thompson and Ely 1989, Robbins 1991). Breeding Bird Survey data indicated that populations of the pileated woodpecker significantly increased during 1966 to 1991 in North America (Bull and Jackson 1995). CBC data indicated that populations of the pileated woodpecker increased 1.3% per year from 1959 through 1988 (Sauer et al. 1996). Trend analysis for CBC's was conducted only on the 34 states and three provinces for which there were consistent sightings from 1959 through 1988, which did not include North Dakota (J. R. Sauer, U.S. Geological Survey, Laurel, Maryland, pers. comm.). Population increases also are occurring in states adjacent to North Dakota. In Minnesota, numbers of pileated woodpecker increased 1.5% per year from 1959 through 1988 (Sauer et al. 1996). The pileated woodpecker has become established in northeastern South Dakota, and nesting has been documented (Harris 1987, 1995).

Possible explanations for the range expansion of the pileated woodpecker include: an increase in the number of people that enjoy birdwatching and thus observe the species; exclusion of fire leading to an increase in numbers of trees; an increase in dead and dying trees due to expansion of tree diseases, such as Dutch elm disease, or to natural death of old trees along major river systems; an increase in arthropod abundance due to tree diseases; reestablishment of forests that had been cleared in the 1900's; normal fluctuations in woodpecker populations; or responses by pioneering woodpeckers to climate change (Hengeveld 1989, Robbins 1991, Johnson 1994, Bull and Jackson 1995). The surge of sightings west of the Agassiz Lake Plain could be attributed to increased numbers of people observing the species; more plausibly, the pileated woodpecker is expanding beyond its historical range due to population growth and dispersal, or to the introduction of tree diseases into North Dakota.

Although the mechanism or combination of mechanisms responsible for the increase in numbers of pileated woodpecker in North Dakota is unclear, the westward range expansion is irrefutable. The increase in number of sightings in the Agassiz Lake Plain and the reports at new locations west of the Agassiz Lake Plains after 1966 attest to range expansion. Prior to 1986, 184 sightings occurred in the Agassiz Lake Plains, compared to 300 after 1985. Six sightings occurred west of the Agassiz Lake Plains prior to 1986, compared to 54 after 1985.

Literature Cited

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Allen, J. A. 1874. Notes on the natural history of portions of Dakota and Montana territories, being the substance of a report to the Secretary of War on the collections made by the North Pacific Railroad Expedition of 1873, Gen. D. S. Stanley, Commander. Proc. Boston Soc. of Nat. Hist. 17:33-85.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Gordon Berkey, Norma Doppler, Lawrence Igl, Gregg Knutsen, George Kalis, Gary Krapu, Randy Kreil, Armand Lagasse, David Lambeth, Jean Legge, Darla Lenz, Ron Martin, Will Meeks, Gary Nielsen, Robert O'Connor, Dennis Pederson, Gail Pederson, Bob Randall, John Sauer, Paulette Scherr, Kevin Sedivec, Neil Shook, and Bryan Stotts for providing information about pileated woodpecker sightings. Thanks also are extended to Gordon Berkey, Douglas Johnson, Ronald Kirby, Stephen Magill, Ron Martin, Rochelle Renken, Terry Shaffer, Maiken Winter, and an anonymous reviewer for reviewing the manuscript, and to Robert Gleason and Betty Euliss for making graphs and maps, Tom Sklebar for providing technical information, and Bruce Hanson for aiding in plant identification around Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center grounds.


This resource is based on the following resource (Northern Prairie Publication 1168):

Dechant, Jill A.  2001.  Range expansion of the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota.  Prairie Naturalist 33(3):163-182.

This resource should be cited as:

Dechant, Jill A.  2001.  Range expansion of the pileated woodpecker in North Dakota.  Prairie Naturalist 33(3):163-182.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/pwprange/index.htm  (Version 12AUG2004).


Jill A. Dechant, U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, 8711 37th St. SE, Jamestown, ND 58401

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