J.W. Graber
Some confusion exists about the species that Jean Graber refers to as the black-backed three-toed woodpecker in her illustration shown on page 9 of this issue of The Illinois Steward. This was the common name used for this species at that time. However, two distinct species of woodpeckers have three toes, the same general appearance, and inhabit almost identical areas across Canada and extreme northern portions of the lower 48 states.

Jean identifies her illustration as Picoides arcticus. She uses the scientific name to avoid confusion. This species is now given the common name of black-backed woodpecker in Peterson Field Guide. Also, H. David Bohlen, author of The Birds of Illinois, calls this species the black-backed woodpecker to differentiate it from the other similar species, which he calls the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). Peterson Field Guide also names this second species the three-toed woodpecker. This confusion illustrates why it is so important to identify the genus and species of an organism, as Jean did with her drawing. Common names sometimes confuse.

Picoides arcticus sports a solid-black back, as shown in Jean’s illustration. Picoides tridactylus, on the other hand, exhibits black-and-white barring down the center of its back. This barring can be seen in the perched position, as well as during flight.

According to the Grabers, the first confirmed Illinois sighting of Picoides arcticus was made in 1876 in Chicago, when one was seen on a telephone pole. Bohlen refers to this species as a “very rare winter resident.” The black-backed is sometimes seen as early as October, but is northward-bound by April. Most sightings have occurred in northern Illinois, with a few as far south as Rantoul (December 25, 1917) and Peoria (January 11, 1925). However, the southernmost record was a specimen collected by Isaac Hess about 1909 near Philo in Champaign County. The greatest number ever recorded in Illinois occurred during the mild winter of 1920–21, when about 15 “black-backs” were spotted. It has been over 20 years since the last confirmed sighting of a black-backed woodpecker has been made in Illinois. From January 5 through March 3, 1986, sightings were made at Thorn Creek Forest Preserve in Will County. They are usually seen in dead trees as they strip off bark and devour wood-boring beetles.

Picoides tridactylus is much rarer in our state, if indeed it has ever been here at all! Bohlen refers to its presence in Illinois as merely “hypothetical.” The only reported sighting occurred on March 6, 1898, in a spruce grove along Lake Michigan, just south of Glencoe. While some may question this record because only one person saw it, confirmed sightings of Picoides tridactylus have been made as close as southern Wisconsin.

So, if you bird a lot and want to go down in history, always take along a pair of binoculars and a friend. If you see a three-toed woodpecker during your trompings, immediately check for a black-and-white barred back. The odds are it will be a solid black. Take consolation, however, that even if it is just a “black-back,” you are in very privileged company.