How many toes do you see?

By Bill Teftt. Photography by Ken Hupila of Snotty Moose Studio
June 1
The thought was “it’s the time of year for most migratory birds to have returned for the summer breeding season” and “Connecticut warblers have been very difficult to find in recent years.” The strategy was “let’s get out early in the habitat that we have known them to live in and use our ears to scout for any singing males.”
Some of our avian neighbors are only here in small numbers and live in neighborhoods suitable for them. Our small group of local naturalists met at an area with mature black spruce wetlands south of the South Kawishiwi River, and we spent the early morning walking some old forest logging roads in the Superior National Forest to explore the edge of wetlands. Several expected species of summer songbirds were heard singing but no Connecticut warblers.
As we began walking out of an area of previously harvested timber, a woodpecker flew from behind us and landed on a dead balsam tree ahead of us in the open. It was almost entirely black, and the immediate recognition was “black-backed woodpecker” which is a common species in this type of habitat in northeastern Minnesota. Binoculars zeroed in and that false identification quickly followed by a corrected “three-toed” identification.
However, this did now require being able to see the number of toes on each foot. All our local woodpecker species have four toes on each foot except for the Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker. But we didn’t need to see the toes for identification when we could see the back. Down the back between the folded wings of an American Three-toed Woodpecker there are white feathers that can be ladder-like in appearance, unlike the closely related Black-backed Woodpecker. Both have three-toes.
Between June 1 and July 12
This woodpecker has another related species, the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, found only in Europe and Asia. Minnesota’s two species are descended from distant ancestors that originally crossed the Bering Strait to North America and evolved into the two species resident here today.
People rarely have an opportunity to meet any American Three-toed Woodpecker in Minnesota. They are only known to live in the Arrowhead Region here, and due to their neighborhoods not attracting a lot of human visitations and their small numbers, they are rarely seen. Therefore, not knowing them very well just creates interest in knowing and lots of questions.
The female that landed on the tree, had a nest cavity that she and her male partner were still excavating. This has created an opportunity to visit, stand at a distance and observe one of the few “three-toed” nests ever found in Minnesota. This couple has been watched periodically through binoculars and spotting scopes, cameras, cell phone cameras and videos. Records of past “three-toed” encounters have been examined and the Ely Field Naturalist library and the internet have been explored for more information. The adults are currently feeding hungry, begging young that are nearing their fledging transition into free flying young birds.
Some people who have studied Minnesota birds throughout their lives recognize the special opportunity to learn more about this species, the forests and natural history in our area. Ornithologists, biologists, college students, field naturalists, college students in their first ornithology class, photographers, elementary and middle school age kids and others are learning and contributing to the potential knowledge that can be derived from considering the lives around us.
There is more to the story including why three toes is a benefit and not a deficiency for woodpeckers like the American Three-toed Woodpeckers.