What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in Alberta?
No matter where you live in Alberta, you can see a variety of woodpeckers. Most people are surprised at the large number of species that can be found near them.
Below you will learn more about each and how to identify them by sight OR sound. Pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
Here are 8 types of woodpeckers that live in Alberta!
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#1. Downy Woodpecker
- Dryobates pubescens
- Relatively small and has a small bill compared to other woodpecker species.
- Color-wise, they have white bellies with a mostly black back that features streaks and spots of white.
- Male birds have a distinctive red spot on the back of their head, which females lack.
Downy Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in Alberta!
You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards and are found in many different habitats. Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods with a nearby water source. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
Downy Woodpecker Range Map
Luckily, this woodpecker species is easy to draw to your backyard. The best foods to use are suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (including peanut butter). You may even spot them drinking sugar water from your hummingbird feeders!
- RELATED: 6 Proven Ways to Attract Woodpeckers
Once you know what to listen for, my guess is that you will start hearing Downy Woodpeckers everywhere you go. Their calls resemble a high-pitched whinnying sound that descends in pitch towards the end. And if you’re really good, you can try to identify this species by how they drum on trees, which they do when looking for a mate or establishing a territory. The drumming is so fast it almost sounds like one uninterrupted sound!
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
- Dryobates villosus
- Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like beak.
- Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Alberta in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. But, honestly, they can be found anywhere with an abundance of large trees.
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food source, insects, isn’t as plentiful. I have the best luck attracting them using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers can be tricky to identify because they look almost identical to Downy Woodpeckers! These two birds are confusing to many people and present a problem when trying to figure out the correct species. Here are the THREE best ways to differentiate these two woodpeckers:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches (23-29 cm) long, about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches (15-18 cm) in length, slightly bigger than a House Sparrow.
- Looking at the size of their bills in relation to their head is my FAVORITE way to tell these woodpeckers apart. Downys have a tiny bill, which measures a bit less than half the length of their head, while Hairys have a bill that is almost the same length as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, you can listen for a Hairy Woodpecker:
The most common call is a short, sharp “peek.” This sound is similar to what a Downy Woodpecker makes, except it’s slightly lower in pitch. They also make a sharp rattling or whinny, which you can hear by pressing PLAY below.
#3. Northern Flicker
- Colaptes auratus
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome birds and relatively common in Alberta. They are about the size of an American Robin and feature a black bib and spotted belly. But, depending on your location, these woodpeckers appear different. There are two distinct variations you should watch for:
Variation #1: Yellow-shafted
This sub-species is mostly found in the eastern half of North America. These birds are characterized by red on the back of their head and yellow feathers on their underwing and tail that are visible in flight. Males also have a BLACK mustache stripe, which females lack.
Variation #2: Red-shafted
This variety is found in the west. To correctly identify, look for a RED mustache stripe, which is found on both sexes. Also, when they are in flight, you can clearly see red-orange feathers on their underwing and tail. Red-shafted Northern Flickers also have a mostly gray face with a brown crown, whereas the Yellow-shafted variety has a brown face and gray crown.
And here is the most confusing part:
Where these two varieties of Northern Flickers overlap, such as in Alberta, they breed with each other! Not surprisingly, these hybrids have a mixture of both features.
Northern Flicker Range Map
To find a Northern Flicker, you should look on the ground! These birds are unique and don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They spend a lot of time searching for ants and beetles on the forest floor by digging through the dirt! They hammer away at the soil just like other woodpeckers drill into trees.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound! Listen for a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
#4. Pileated Woodpecker
- Dryocopus pileatus
- Mostly black but with white stripes on their face and neck.
- Look for a large triangle red crest on the top of their heads.
- Males have a red stripe on their cheeks, whereas the stripe is black on females.
No other woodpecker in Alberta makes you stop in your tracks like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE; adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (76 cm). For reference, this is about the size of a crow.
Pileated Woodpecker Range Map
Pileated Woodpeckers are found in Alberta in large, mature forests with many dead and fallen trees. They rely on rotting wood consisting of ants, wood-boring beetles, and termites to find food, although they will supplement their diet with fruits and nuts. And if you’re lucky, it’s possible to see them in your yard visiting suet feeders!
These birds are quite vocal, and you should have no problem hearing one. Listen for a loud “cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk,” which rises and falls in pitch and volume. Just to warn you, Northern Flickers sound incredibly similar!
#5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus varius
- Black and white backside and a large white shoulder patch.
- Look for their distinctive red crown and black and white striped face. Males have a red throat, while females are white!
- As the name suggests, most individuals have a yellowish-white belly.
This migratory woodpecker is found in Alberta in young deciduous forests. They need habitats with many growing trees, which are perfect for creating productive sap wells. Their favorites seem to be maples and birches, although Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been documented drilling into over 1,000 different tree species.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Range Map
As the name suggests, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers rely heavily on tree sap as a high-energy food. These birds drill holes into living trees, neatly organized into rows. These holes become sap wells, which slowly leak sap that is eagerly eaten.
Sap wells are even important to hummingbirds! Some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their migration north each spring to correlate with Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The sugary sap ensures that hummingbirds have a food source since not many flowers are blooming yet!
The most common sound these birds make is a nasally, cat-like “meow,” which is typically repeated.
#6. Red-naped Sapsucker
- Sphyrapicus nuchalis
- Smaller woodpeckers with black bodies, a white vertical stripe down the wing, and a red crown.
- Male birds have a red throat and red nape (back of the neck).
- Females also have a red throat, but there is also a small white patch just under the bill, and their nape can be white or red.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are commonly found in Alberta near aspen, birch, and willow trees. Look for their presence by examining these trees for tiny holes that have been drilled for sap.
To slurp up sap, these migratory woodpeckers have a specialized tongue. Believe it or not, they have stiff hairs on the ends, which helps drink the sap more effectively. The sap wells they create are important to them, and they spend a lot of time defending them from other birds.
Red-naped Sapsucker Range Map
Red-naped Sapsuckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers used to be lumped together as the same species. But in 1983, researchers determined that they needed to be separated into individual species. But where territories overlap, these species will breed with each other. So if you ever have trouble differentiating between sapsucker species, please know you may be looking at a hybrid!
The most common sound you will hear is a harsh, repeated “waah.” Some people think they sound like a small child crying. You can also listen for their drumming, which is relatively slow and irregular.
#7. American Three-toed Woodpecker
- Picoides dorsalis
- Both sexes have black and white barring around and across their bodies.
- Males have a yellow crown on the top of their heads, whereas females have a black crown with white spots and streaks.
In Alberta, American Three-toed Woodpeckers live among conifer trees.
Specifically, these birds are found in disturbed areas, such as coniferous forests, that have been damaged by fires, wind storms, or floods. These places have lots of dead trees and limbs, which attract beetle larvae that these woodpeckers feast on!
American Three-toed Woodpecker Range Map
One interesting fact about this bird is that it breeds farther north than ANY other woodpecker in North America!
American Three-toed Woodpeckers have a distinctive foraging style. They chip at dead or dying trees until pieces of bark break off, which gives them access to the insects (and sometimes sap) beneath. A good indication that these birds are in the area is if you can find a tree with patches of dark outer bark and lighter inner bark.
In-flight, you may also hear a descending rattle, which is similar in sound to a kingfisher. Their typical call is a soft, squeaking “mew” or “pik.”
#8. Black-backed Woodpecker
- Picoides arcticus
- These woodpeckers are relatively easy to identify since they have a solid black back.
- Males have a distinctive yellow patch on the top of their heads, which females lack.
Finding a Black-backed Woodpecker is easy! All you need to do is find forests that have been burned within the last eight years!
These woodpeckers are habitat specialists and locate recently burned areas just weeks after the fire blazes through. These birds feast on the wood-boring beetles that start infesting the dead trees. The feasting is so good that Black-backed Woodpeckers will stay in these areas from five to eight years after the initial burn.
Black-backed Woodpecker Range Map
Their call sounds like a hard or sharp “kyiik” or “pik.”
Which types of woodpeckers have you seen before in Alberta?
Leave a comment below!