The wonderful woodpeckers of Alaska

It is opening day of the winter Nelchina caribou season — at least for federal subsistence hunters. One would think I might be writing about that? Nope. This is about woodpeckers. We have seven or eight species of these little guys in Alaska, depending on who you talk to.

Four species spend all year in the state, most of them in the Interior and Southcentral. Three species migrate south and the eighth variety has been seen only rarely in Alaska. The great spotted woodpecker breeds on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, among other places in Eurasia. Some of these Kamchatka birds have occasionally been sighted in Alaska. The Aleutian Islands and the Pribilofs have had several sightings. That isn’t what one might think of as ideal woodpecker habitat — not many trees in that country.

Two of Alaska’s migratory woodpeckers are the red-breasted sapsucker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which appear only in Southeast and are rare even there. Southcentral and the Interior have the northern flicker, at least for the summer. These are big, visible birds that make a lot of noise. In the spring they will spend much of their time trying to drum up a mate. They are loud! We had one banging away on a log outside our window for a week. His diligence paid off and soon there were two of them. They commandeered one of our swallow houses. It took them four or five days of steady work to enlarge the entry hole. It was evidently worth the effort and they raised four youngsters who all eventually flew off to keep other people awake at night.

Northern flickers migrate south fairly early. They may stay around the Mat-Su area into late September, but they are certainly gone from north of the Alaska Range by then. Flickers are big birds; at a glance they are half as big as a robin. Their call is a loud, evenly spaced continuous chirp. Like all woodpecker species, their diet is mostly insects. They spend a fair amount of time feeding on the ground and will utilize berry crops in the fall before migration.

There are four types of Alaskan woodpeckers that stick it out through the winter. They spend all of their daylight hours feeding. All four have similar feeding habits. The three-toed woodpecker has a tendency to spend much of its time working the edges of burned areas. Trees that have been fire-killed, but still have bark, are great places to find insect larvae, which is their main diet. This woodpecker is our most widespread, inhabiting all types of spruce forests. The yellow forehead patch makes identification easy.

Two other species of woodpecker are common in our mature spruce forests. The hairy woodpecker and the downy woodpecker are quite similar and can be difficult for novice birders to distinguish. Males of both species have bright-red neck patches. Downy woodpeckers are smaller — but who gets to see them side by side? Both of these woodpecker types are black and white with a white stripe down the back — the three-toed woodpecker is also black and white, but has barred stripes on its back and sides.

Our fourth winter resident woodpecker is almost never seen. Black-backed woodpeckers are identified by their all-black back. Otherwise they are similar to the three-toed woodpecker, though slightly larger. Sightings are rare so count yourself lucky if you can ID one.

Woodpeckers are a valuable resource in Alaska. They eat untold numbers of beetle larvae. In areas with spruce beetle infestations, large numbers of these birds can move in and undoubtedly have quite an effect. A single woodpecker may consume up 13,000 beetle larvae annually. They also remove loose bark that protects beetle larvae and thus make these immature insects available for chickadees, brown creepers and other birds who otherwise may not have access.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers will come to bird feeders during winter months to feed on suet. The sight of a woodpecker among the chickadees is a real treat. Don’t have a bird feeder? These friendly, visible birds are easy to find and spot in almost any spruce forest. Most of the time one will hear them before seeing them. Follow the unmistakable jackhammer drumming and you will be rewarded. Who cares if you have no federal caribou permit? Five hundred dollars’ worth of food and gas to take a “maybe” caribou? There is more satisfaction in a good chicken dinner and seeing that happy little woodpecker banging away on a spruce tree.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.