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Alaska woodpeckers divide into the hardy species and the most diverse species. The Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers rank as the most hardy and northern breeding species. The remaining species of flickers and Picoides have ranges that extend throughout the United States.
Species from two additional genera, the Dryocopus (Pileated Woodpeckers) and Malanerpes, have no presence in Alaska. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:
Northern flickers, red-breasted sapsuckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers migrate south in winter, returning in early spring
Flickers (genus Colaptes) rank as one of the most common woodpeckers in the United States. They have a presence in every single state, including Alaska.
Although instances of hybridization continues to be a subject of technical discussion, for practical purposes it’s fine to point out that only two flicker species have been documented. The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is the species most familiar to Americans and it divides into western and eastern subspecies. The West Coast variant is named the Red-shafted Northern Flicker. The color designation refers to the under the wing color of their tail and wing feathers. The picture at the top of the page shows a female. Males have red stripes on the face that resemble a mustach.
Flickers are the ground feeders of the woodpecker family. They prefer open habitats such as fields and residential areas because they supply them with their primary food sources such as insects, seeds and berries. The male is distinguished from the female by the red patch on the cheek.
Popular birds, they are welcome at many back yard feeders and especially enjoy a snack of suet and water. With a life that often exceeds the five year mark, homeowners might expect a long term relationship with any flickers they might attract to the back yard feeder.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with the Black-backed woodpecker. They are not your typical feeder bird. Rather their preferred habitat is the Northern Boreal forests, especially those that suffere some type of damage. That’s the case because their diet consists rimarily of insects, especially wood-boring beetles that flock to large dead and moribund trees.
Black-backed woodpecker populatons necessarily are links to habitat changes. In times of abundant food, populations thrive. Unfortunately in times where forest areas recover, their populations decrease.
They are cavity nesters, similar to other woodpeciers. As the picture highlights, the yellow crown on the male distinguishes them from the typical red crown of more common woodpecker species. Females have a black crown.
When the woodpecker discussion turns to climate, the American Three-toed Woodpecker gets the nod as the most hardy of the native woodpecker species. It breeds farther north than any other American woodpecker, including parts of Alaska.
Physically it resembles the Black-backed Woodpecker, although it’s a bit smaller with a shorter bill. Otherwise, the black and white bars on the back and presence of a yellow crown on the male are similar. Female has solid black crown.
Populations in the far north and high mountains may migrate to the valleys, and on rare occurrences even further south, during the winter. Otherwise, they are not known as a regular migratory species. Their life in the woods means they are not known as a common backyard feeder bird.
North America’s most diverse woodpecker genera, Picoides, records nine separate species. The smallest and most common Picoides, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) adapts equally well to most wilderness and residential areas with trees.
Physically, the Downy’s black and white feather pattern resembles the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker. In instances where size comparisons might not be available, experts suggest examining the bill size in relation to the head size. Downy Woodpeckers typically have small bills.
They are the most common of Alaska woodpeckers.
Everything that is written about the Downy Woodpecker can be written about the Hairy Woodpecker with few caveats. The picture highlights the most important caveat, they have a larger bill than the Downy. Otherwise, the black and white striped face, white belly and back feathers look very similar. Males also have a red crown.
They are a very common species across the United States because they are adaptable to forests and residential areas alike. Look for them at the backyard feeder.
Alaska Woodpeckers: Sapsuckers
Four sapsucker species (Sphyrapicus) drill their wells in trees from coast to coast. The Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), in the picture is the native Alaska species. They spend their summers in higher elevation forests near rivers and streams. Some populations migrate down to the valleys during winters.
There have been a handful of sightings of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breeding in Alaska over the past twenty years. According to some notes from Western Field Ornithologists, only two instances of breeding couples had been witnessed up to 1996. Bird watchers have continued to document individual sightings over the years.