7 Woodpeckers of Alaska (With Pictures)

7 Woodpeckers of Alaska (With Pictures)

Alaska, a vast wilderness of untamed beauty and diverse ecosystems, is a haven for a remarkable variety of woodpeckers, each with unique habits and appearances that contribute to the richness of the state’s avian life. From the dense, verdant rainforests of the Southeast to the sprawling boreal forests that blanket much of the interior, these industrious birds carve out an existence, playing crucial roles in their habitats.

Woodpeckers such as the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and the elusive American Three-toed Woodpecker, among others, are not just fascinating subjects for birdwatchers; they are integral to maintaining the health of forests. They control insect populations, aid in the decomposition of dead trees, and create nesting opportunities for other species.

This article aims to delve into the lives of Alaska’s woodpeckers, exploring their distribution, unique adaptations, and the vital ecological functions they perform within the Last Frontier’s majestic landscapes.

1. Downy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides pubescens
  • Life span: 2-5 years
  • Size: 6-7 inches (15.4 – 17.8 cm)
  • Weight: 1 oz (28 g)
  • Wingspan: 13 inches (33 cm)
  • Status: Least concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Downy Woodpecker, a familiar sight across North America, graces forests, suburbs, and parks alike, making it one of the continent’s most widespread and adaptable woodpecker species. Its geographical range spans from Alaska and Canada through to the southern United States, inhabiting areas from dense woodlands to urban backyards.

This diminutive bird presents a striking black-and-white color palette, with a sharp contrast between its white underbelly and black wings that boast white spots. Males are distinguished by a small red patch on the back of their heads, a splash of color amidst their otherwise monochrome appearance. The Downy Woodpecker’s petite size and agile movements allow it to forage nimbly on slender branches, making it a delightful bird to observe.

Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker crafts a cozy nook within the cavities of trees, showing a preference for dead wood where it meticulously carves out a living space. This labour of love involves both mates, turning the act into a duet of pecking precision. Their homes are not just shelters but a testament to their resilience and creativity, often reused by other species in a beautiful display of ecological recycling.

With a diet as eclectic as its habitat, the Downy Woodpecker flits from tree to tree, gleaning insects from bark crevices and slurping up sap. It’s not averse to visiting backyard feeders, delighting onlookers with its acrobatic feats while it enjoys suet and seeds. This bird’s diet underscores its role in controlling pest populations and maintaining the health of its woodland realms.

Despite facing challenges like habitat loss and climate change, the Downy Woodpecker remains a beacon of adaptability. Conservation efforts focus on preserving the forests and woodlands that are crucial to its survival, alongside promoting practices that protect its nesting sites. This bird’s resilience, aided by human efforts to maintain its natural habitats, ensures that it continues to thrive in Alaska’s diverse ecosystems.

2. Hairy Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides villosus
  • Life span: 5-10 years
  • Size: 7-10 inches (17.4 – 25.4 cm)
  • Weight: 1.5 oz (42.5g)
  • Wingspan: 16-20 inches (40.6 – 50.8 cm)
  • Status: Least concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Hairy Woodpecker, a bird of mature forests across North America, mirrors the Downy Woodpecker in appearance but brings its own unique presence to its wide-ranging habitats. From the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska to the wooded regions of Central America, this species demonstrates remarkable adaptability.

Its plumage is predominantly black and white, with a bold white back and a starkly contrasting black wingspan adorned with white spots. The male’s identification is marked by a distinctive red patch on the head, setting him apart from the female. The Hairy Woodpecker’s appearance is not just for show; it serves as a camouflage against the bark of trees, making it a master of blending into its surroundings while it busily forages for insects.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpeckers take the art of nest-building to new heights, choosing towering trees to chisel out their nests. This selection ensures their offspring are tucked away from predators, showcasing the protective instincts of these avian architects. Their nesting sites, often higher than their downy cousins, offer a bird’s eye view of the forest’s comings and goings, a strategic choice for safety and food access.

A connoisseur of the insect world, the Hairy Woodpecker’s diet is a testament to nature’s balance. Beetles, ants, and larvae form the crux of its meals, making it a natural pest control agent. The bird’s sharp bill is a tool of precision, peeling back bark and drilling into wood to feast on insects that would otherwise harm the forest’s health.

Conservationists champion the Hairy Woodpecker as an indicator of forest health, focusing on protecting mature forests that provide essential feeding and nesting sites. Efforts to mitigate deforestation and maintain ecological integrity are vital. Educational programs raise awareness of the woodpecker’s role in ecosystem health, encouraging practices that support biodiversity and the species’ well-being.

3. Black-Backed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides arcticus
  • Life span: Up to 8 years
  • Size: 9-10 inches (23-25 cm)
  • Weight: 2.5 oz (62g)
  • Wingspan: 16-17 inches (40-43 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Black-backed Woodpecker is a bird of the North, thriving in boreal forests and areas affected by wildfire or pestilence across North America, from Alaska to the northeastern United States and across Canada.

Its entirely black back and wings set it apart from other woodpeckers, providing excellent camouflage against the charred trees of its preferred habitats. The stark white underparts, along with the male’s distinct yellow crown, make it a striking figure amidst the post-fire landscapes it helps to rejuvenate.

This woodpecker’s reliance on burned forests for feeding and nesting highlights its critical role in the ecosystem as a species that promotes the health and renewal of forests.

Black-Backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed Woodpecker is a master of adaptation, finding solace and shelter in the aftermath of forest fires. By nesting in burned trees, these woodpeckers take advantage of the increased availability of their prey amidst the charred remains.

Their preference for post-fire habitats showcases a remarkable resilience and underscores the importance of natural fire cycles in creating diverse, healthy forests.

Specializing in hunting wood-boring beetles, the Black-backed Woodpecker’s diet makes it a natural beneficiary of forest fires. The burnt woods become a feast for these birds, illustrating a fascinating example of nature’s resilience. Their dietary habits underscore the woodpecker’s role in the recovery of burnt forests, aiding in the decomposition of dead trees and the rejuvenation of the forest floor.

Conservation efforts for the Black-backed Woodpecker focus on recognizing the ecological benefits of natural wildfires and the importance of preserving post-burn habitats. Advocacy for leaving burned forests undisturbed supports not only the woodpeckers but also the complex ecosystem that emerges after a fire.

These efforts highlight the need for policies that balance fire management with the conservation of critical habitats for species like the Black-backed Woodpecker.

4. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Melanerpes flavifrons
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches (20.3 – 25.4 cm)
  • Weight: 2.5 oz (70.8 g)
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches (35.5 – 40.6 cm)
  • Status: Least concern
  • State status: Migratory and rare

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a migratory woodpecker, etches its way across the eastern North America, from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, stretching to the southeastern United States in the winter. This bird is visually distinguished by its striking plumage: a black and white face, with a red forehead and throat in males, and a white throat in females.

The yellowish underparts from which it gets its name are most vibrant during the breeding season. Its habit of drilling orderly rows of wells in tree bark to feed on sap and the insects attracted thereto makes it a keystone species in its ecosystem, supporting a variety of other species.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s nesting strategy is a lesson in resourcefulness, selecting tree species that maximize sap flow for their nests. These cavities, carved with precision, not only serve as nurseries but also as sap wells, providing nourishment right at their doorstep. Their choice reflects an intimate knowledge of their forested homes, a wisdom passed down through generations.

Sap is the lifeblood of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s diet, a unique preference that sets it apart from its peers. By drilling neat rows of holes in tree bark, it accesses this sugary fluid, inadvertently creating a dining spot for other species too. This diet highlights the sapsucker’s role in the forest’s web of life, a reminder of our interconnected ecosystems.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers face challenges from habitat degradation and climate change. Conservationists emphasize the importance of preserving mixed-wood forests that are vital for their survival. Efforts include monitoring populations and advocating for responsible forestry practices that protect the sapsucker’s habitat. By safeguarding these environments, we not only support the sapsucker but also the myriad species that depend on the sap wells it creates.

5. Northern Flicker

  • Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
  • Life span: 5-8 years
  • Size: 28–36 cm (11–14 in)
  • Weight: 86 – 167 g (3 – 6 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42–54 cm (16.5 – 21.5 inches)
  • Status: Least concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Northern Flicker stands out among woodpeckers with its unique behaviour of foraging on the ground and its striking appearance. This bird spans the width of North America, from Alaska to Central America, favouring edges of forests, open woods, and parklands.

The Northern Flicker is notable for its large size, brownish body, black spots, bars on the back, and a distinctive black ‘moustache’ in males. Its underwing and tail are bright yellow in the eastern subspecies and red in the western subspecies, creating a flash of color in flight that is unforgettable.

The Northern Flicker’s polka-dotted chest and robust build make it one of the most easily recognized and appreciated woodpeckers in its range.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flickers break the mold with their ground-digging antics, a rarity among woodpeckers. They also nest in tree cavities, showing versatility in their choice of home. These ground-level nests, often hidden beneath the overhang of branches or roots, reveal the flicker’s adaptability and ingenuity in protecting its brood from the elements and predators.

Ants are the cuisine of choice for the Northern Flicker, making up a large portion of its diet. This woodpecker’s long, barbed tongue is perfectly adapted to snatching ants and beetles from the ground, showcasing a fascinating evolution of feeding habits. Their diet underscores the interconnectedness of ground and tree ecosystems, with each flicker foray keeping the insect population in check.

The Northern Flicker, with its distinctive ground-feeding behaviour, benefits from conservation efforts that protect both forested and open habitats. Maintaining a balance between these environments is crucial for their survival, as it ensures access to a diverse diet and nesting sites.

Educational outreach and habitat restoration projects aim to secure a future for these charismatic birds, highlighting their ecological importance and the need for comprehensive conservation strategies.

6. Red-breasted Sapsucker

  • Scientific name: Sphyrapicus ruber
  • Life span: 2-4 years
  • Size: 20-23 cm (8-9 inches)
  • Weight: 53-64 g (1.9-2.2 oz)
  • Wingspan: 37-41 cm (14.6-16.1 inches)
  • Status: Least concern
  • State status: Breeding and rare

The Red-breasted Sapsucker, a vibrant resident of the western forests of North America, from Alaska through California, brings a splash of color to the woodpecker family. Its geographical range is marked by diverse forest habitats, where it can be found tapping into trees to feed on sap.

The bird’s most notable feature is its richly red head and breast, which contrast beautifully with its white and black mottled back and wings. This striking appearance not only makes the Red-breasted Sapsucker easy to identify, but also serves a practical purpose, allowing it to blend into its environment while it meticulously works on tree bark.

Red-breasted Sapsucker

The Red-breasted Sapsucker brings a touch of color to Alaska’s forests, selecting trees with high sap flow for both feeding and nesting. Their intricate nests, carved into the soft wood of living trees, reflect an intimate relationship with their environment, showcasing the bird’s dependence on specific tree species for survival. This nesting behavior not only ensures the young’s nourishment but also contributes to the dynamic life of the forest.

Primarily feeding on the sap of trees, the Red-breasted Sapsucker’s diet is a delicate balance of nature’s offerings. By drilling sap wells, they not only feed themselves but also provide resources for other species, demonstrating the interconnectedness of forest life. Their preference for certain trees for sap mirrors the ecological relationships that sustain the forest’s biodiversity, underscoring the sapsucker’s role in its habitat.

The conservation of the Red-breasted Sapsucker focuses on the preservation of old-growth forests and the specific tree species they depend on for nesting and feeding. Efforts to protect these environments from deforestation and degradation are crucial for the sapsucker’s survival.

Conservationists work to raise awareness of the bird’s ecological role and the broader importance of forest diversity, aiming to ensure a future where both the Red-breasted Sapsucker and its forest home can thrive.

7. American Tree-Toed Woodpecker

  • Scientific name: Picoides dorsalis
  • Life span: 6-11 years
  • Size: 8.3 inches (21 cm)
  • Weight: 1.9 oz (55 g)
  • Wingspan: 15 inches (38 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The American Three-toed Woodpecker is somewhat of a specialist, favouring boreal forests and burnt woodlands across North America, from Alaska down through the western United States into Central America.

This bird’s appearance is adapted to its environment, featuring a black back speckled with white spots, a white breast, and barring on the sides. Its most distinguishing feature, apart from having only three toes on each foot, is the yellow cap found on the male, contrasting sharply with the primarily black and white body.

This woodpecker’s preference for beetle-infested trees or those affected by fire makes it an important player in forest regeneration and pest control.

American Tree-Toed Woodpecker

In the quiet solitude of the boreal forest, the American Three-toed Woodpecker carves out a living. Preferring the trunks of dead or dying trees, these birds demonstrate an uncanny ability to locate the perfect nesting site that offers both shelter and a food source nearby. Their nesting habits contribute to the forest’s cycle of renewal, as they help decompose dead trees, making way for new growth.

Bark beetles are the delicacy of choice for the American Three-toed Woodpecker. With a diet heavily reliant on these insects, they play a critical role in controlling beetle outbreaks in boreal forests. Their foraging habits are a natural form of pest control, highlighting the woodpecker’s essential role in maintaining the health and balance of forest ecosystems.

The conservation of the American Three-toed Woodpecker involves protecting old-growth forests and managing forest fires in a way that balances renewal with the preservation of critical habitat. Conservationists advocate for sustainable forestry practices and the protection of burn areas, which are crucial for the species’ breeding and feeding.

These efforts aim to ensure that this unique woodpecker continues to thrive in Alaska’s forests, maintaining the ecological balance.

Where to look for Woodpeckers in Alaska

In Alaska, the quest for spotting woodpeckers, with their distinctive pecking behaviour and vivid plumage, offers a unique birdwatching experience amidst the state’s vast wilderness. To find these fascinating birds, enthusiasts should aim for wooded areas where woodpeckers are known to feed, nest, and roost.

Forests, both coniferous and deciduous, particularly those with a significant presence of dead trees, offer ideal habitats for woodpeckers due to the abundance of insects found in rotting wood.

When searching for woodpeckers in Alaska, the early morning hours are typically the most productive. During this time, woodpeckers are most active, making their characteristic pecking noise as they search for food, which can help in locating them. Additionally, woodpeckers are attracted to suet feeders, so placing one near a wooded area can be an effective strategy for drawing them closer for observation.

Four notable areas in Alaska for woodpecker spotting include:

  • Chugach State Park: This expansive park near Anchorage provides a variety of habitats, from lowland forests to alpine tundra, making it a hotspot for several woodpecker species.
  • Tongass National Forest: The largest national forest in the United States, located in southeast Alaska, offers old-growth and secondary forests where woodpeckers thrive.
  • Denali National Park and Preserve: Known for its stunning landscapes, this park also supports a variety of birdlife, including woodpeckers, in its boreal forests.
  • Kenai National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge provides diverse habitats, from lakes and wetlands to forests, making it another excellent location for birdwatching, including woodpecker sightings.

For the best experience, birdwatchers should equip themselves with a good pair of binoculars, a field guide to help identify different woodpecker species, and patience, as finding and observing these birds can take time.


Woodpeckers in Alaska represent a fascinating and vital part of the state’s rich biodiversity, showcasing the resilience and adaptability of avian life in its varied ecosystems. From the dense, mossy forests of the Southeast to the rugged boreal expanses of the Interior, these remarkable birds carve out a niche that is both unique and essential.

Observing woodpeckers in their natural habitat offers a window into the complex interplay between species and environment, underscoring the importance of conservation efforts to preserve these ecosystems.

For bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike, Alaska’s woodpeckers are a testament to the beauty and mystery of the natural world, inviting exploration and appreciation of the wild spaces that they inhabit.

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