The 7 Woodpecker Species Found in Alaska! (ID Guide)
What kinds of woodpeckers can you find in Alaska?
Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds to attract, and I look for them every day in our backyard. I love watching them eat suet from my feeders, or if I’m lucky, listening to them in the woods as they drum on trees. 🙂
No matter where you live in Alaska, you are able to see a large number of woodpeckers hanging around. Most people are surprised at the wide variety of species that can be found near them.
To learn more about other birds near you, check out these guides!
- The 3 Types of Blackbirds That Live in Alaska!
21 Types of WATER BIRDS That Live in Alaska (Ducks, herons, loons, etc.)
In fact, 7 types of woodpeckers live across Alaska!
Below you will learn more about each one AND how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which woodpeckers live near you!
- *RELATED: Watch the LIVE bird feeder and animal cameras in MY backyard* (You may get lucky and see a woodpecker feeding on my cams RIGHT NOW!)
#1. Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpeckers are one of the most common woodpeckers in Alaska! You probably recognize them, as they are a familiar sight in most backyards.
These birds have a shorter bill and are relatively small compared to other 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 Woodpecker Range Map
Downy Woodpeckers are found in many different habitats in Alaska Naturally, they are seen in deciduous woods that have a water source nearby. But these birds have adapted well to human development and are commonly observed in suburban backyards, parks, orchards, and cemeteries.
How do you attract Downy Woodpeckers to your feeders?
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! If you use suet products for attracting woodpeckers, make sure to use a specialized suet bird feeder.
Naturally, these birds eat many types of insects, such as beetle larvae, hidden beneath the barks of trees. Ants and caterpillars are also readily consumed, along with a mix of berries, grains, and acorns.
What sounds do Downy Woodpeckers make?
Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!
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 the way 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!
#2. Hairy Woodpecker
Appearance-wise, Hairy Woodpeckers have been compared to soldiers, as they have cleanly striped heads and an erect, straight-backed posture while on trees. Their bodies are black and white overall with a long, chisel-like bill. Male birds can be identified by a red patch at the back of their heads, which females lack.
Hairy Woodpecker Range Map
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Alaska in mature forests, suburban backyards, urban parks, swamps, orchards, and even cemeteries. Honestly, they can be found anywhere where there is an abundance of large trees around.
These woodpeckers are easily attracted to bird feeders!
Typically, I see them the most during winter when their primary food sources, which are insects, aren’t as plentiful, and their diet switches to mainly seeds. I have the best luck using suet and sunflower seeds in my backyard.
Hairy Woodpeckers can be a bit 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 best ways to differentiate them:
- Hairy’s are larger and measure 9 – 11 inches long, which is about the same size as an American Robin. A Downy is smaller and only measures 6 – 7 inches in length, which is 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 size as their head.
Outer tail feathers:
- If all else fails, then try to get a good look at their outer tail feathers. Hairys will be completely white, while Downys are spotted.
Lastly, listen for their two distinct sounds:
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.
#3. Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers are wonderfully handsome birds and relatively common in Alaska. They are about the size of an American Robin and feature a black bib and spotted belly.
Depending on your location, these woodpeckers appear different. There are two distinct variations you should watch for:
This sub-species is mostly found in the eastern half of the continent. 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 mustache stripe, which females lack.
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, they breed with each other! Not surprisingly, these hybrids have a mixture of both features.
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 their 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.
Watch a Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) visiting my feeding station!
In the winter, their diet switches to include fruits and berries, which is when it’s possible to see them at bird feeders. They don’t visit often, but you may see them nibbling on suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. To attract Northern Flickers, you may have better luck installing an appropriately sized nestbox or ensuring your backyard has many native plants, which attract insect species.
Northern Flickers are fairly easy to identify by sound!
Northern Flickers emit a loud ringing call that sounds like a piercing “wicka-wicka-wicka.”
They also make a one-note contact call (“peah”).
#4. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a black and white backside and a large white shoulder patch. Look for their distinctive red crown and black and white striped face. As the name suggests, most individuals have a yellowish-white belly.
The only way to tell males and females apart is by the color of their throat. Males have a red throat, while females are white!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Range Map
This migratory woodpecker is found in Alaska in young deciduous forests. They need habitats that feature lots of growing trees, which are perfect for creating productive sap wells. While Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been documented drilling into over 1,000 different tree species, their favorites seem to be maples and birches.
Why are sap wells important to these woodpeckers?
As the name suggests, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers rely heavily on tree sap as a high energy food. These birds drill holes, which are neatly organized into rows (see picture above), into living trees. 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!
Press PLAY below to hear a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!
The most common sound these birds make is a nasally, cat-like “meow,” which is typically repeated often.
#5. American Three-toed Woodpecker
Both sexes have black and white barring around and across their bodies. Males have a yellow crown on the top of their head, whereas females have a black crown with white spots and streaks.
You will find American Three-toed Woodpeckers living 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. This is because these places have lots of dead trees and limbs, which attract beetle larvae that these woodpeckers feast on!
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 with 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.”
American Three-toed Woodpecker Range Map
One interesting fact about this bird is that it breeds farther north than ANY other woodpecker in Alaska!
#6. Black-backed Woodpecker
Finding a Black-backed Woodpecker in easy! All you need to do is find forests that have been burned within the last eight years!
These woodpeckers are 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 anywhere from five to eight years after the initial burn.
Black-backed Woodpecker Range Map
You can find these woodpeckers in Alaska living in coniferous forests.
These woodpeckers are relatively easy to identify since, as the name suggests, they have a completely solid black back. Males have a distinctive yellow patch on the top of their head, which females lack.
Their call sounds like a hard or sharp “kyiik” or “pik.”
#7. Red-breasted Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are found in coniferous forests, typically at lower elevations. Look for a medium-sized bird with a red-head and breast and a white spot in front of the eye. Large white patches appear on the wings, and both males and females look the same.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Range Map
As the name suggests, sapsuckers drill wells into trees to eat the sugary liquid that leaks out. Their favorite trees to use are willows and birches. In addition to sap, these woodpeckers also eat insects and some fruits.
Interestingly, Rufous Hummingbirds tend to follow Red-breasted Sapsuckers around. These tiny birds enjoy feeding on the sap that the sapsuckers get flowing and are even known to nest near the sap wells.
Their call is a harsh, slurred “whee-ur” or “mew.”
Which woodpecker species have you seen before in Alaska?
Leave a comment below!
- RELATED: 8 Most Common Hummingbird Species! (ID Guide)
The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!