Everything You Need to Know About Woodpeckers in Alberta

Three toed woodpecker

Woodpeckers have excellent hearing and can hear insects and larvae moving and chewing in wood.

There are 13 species of woodpecker in Alberta that have been spotted. Of these, 6 species are recognized on state checklists as regularly occurring, and 7 additional species are considered rare or accidental.

Going out birding in the woods and forest is the best way of seeing woodpeckers in Alberta. However, some such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers can regularly be seen on backyard feeders.

This guide will help you identify the species of woodpecker in Alberta according to avibase.

Common_birds_-_part_1 x

Woodpeckers make distinctive drumming sounds, especially in the spring when they are looking for a mate. Both male and female woodpeckers make drumming sounds.

There are some gross woodpecker facts if you want to understand more about these fascinating birds.

You can print out a free bird identification photo guide for Alberta to help you identify all birds that visit your backyard.

In Alberta, the most common woodpecker in both summer and winter is the Northern Flicker. The Downy Woodpecker is more commonly spotted in winter, while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and several other species are more commonly spotted in summer.

Read on to find out all about the woodpeckers in Alberta, with pictures, videos, and what sounds they make.

There are 13 species of woodpecker in Alberta:

  1. Downy Woodpecker
  2. Northern Flicker
  3. Hairy Woodpecker
  4. Pileated Woodpecker
  5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  6. American Three-toed Woodpecker
  7. Black-backed Woodpecker
  8. Lewis’s Woodpecker
  9. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  10. Red-headed Woodpecker
  11. Red-breasted Sapsucker
  12. Williamson’s Sapsucker
  13. Acorn Woodpecker

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The 13 Types of Woodpecker in Alberta

1. Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker for identification in Massachusetts MA
Male
Downy woodpecker female
Female

Downy Woodpeckers are found in Alberta all year, especially in forests and parks during winter.

In winter, they are the most frequently spotted woodpecker in Alberta and appear in 37% of checklists submitted by bird watchers. In summer, they are in 12% of checklists.

The Downy Woodpecker has black and white patterning, mostly black with a white patch on their backs.  The males also have a red patch on the back of their heads.

  • Length: 5.5-6.7 in (14-17 cm)
  • Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz (21-28 g)
  • Wingspan: 9.8-11.8 in (25-30 cm)

Although visually very similar to the Hairy Woodpecker, it is a third smaller and with a smaller beak compared to other woodpeckers. It is usually a Downy Woodpecker that you see at feeders as they are more common.

Downy Woodpeckers are very common throughout the US and Canada. They are not found along the southern border with Mexico or the North of Canada.

Downy Woodpeckers can be found on backyard bird feeders. They make a high-pitched pik sound and the descending whinny call and are very active, so fun to watch.  Downy Woodpeckers nest in dead tree cavities and lay between 3-8 small (0.8 in) white eggs.

Downy woodpeckers eat mainly insects, especially larvae, nuts and they also eat berries, acorns, and grains.  They will sometimes be seen drinking from hummingbird feeders.

Downy Woodpecker sound

Downy Woodpeckers are the most common woodpecker. They make a slightly slower drumming sound, so you can hear more of the individual drums than the Hairy Woodpecker, to which they look and sound similar.

Credit: www.xeno-canto.org Aiden Place

Where to spot Downy Woodpeckers:

Downy Woodpeckers are often seen mixed in with other small birds such as nuthatches and chickadees. They can be found in open woodlands and parks, orchards, and backyards and are commonly seen at feeders.  They can also be seen amongst tall weeds.

How to attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your backyard: 

An upside-down suet feeder is excellent for smaller woodpeckers such as Downy Woodpeckers as they offer protection from the rain and help stop bully birds.  A bulk pack of suet cakes is a more economical way of buying them.

Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in great combination suet and hopper feeder, you get two feeders in one.

2. Northern Flicker

northern-flicker-male-yellow-shafted
Male Yellow-Shafted
Northern flicker female yellow shafted
Female Yellow-shafted

Northern Flickers are residents of Alberta all year, and they are the most frequently spotted woodpecker in summer, appearing in 21% of bird checklists submitted by bird watchers. They are second on the list in winter and recorded in 21% of checklists.

Northern Flickers are large brown woodpeckers with colorful black-spotted plumage with a white patch on its rump in flight plus a red nape of the neck in the males. 

Northern Flickers have red or yellow flashes in the wings and tail depending on where they originate. Red-shafted birds live in the west, and yellow-shafted birds live in the east.

  • Length: 11.0-12.2 in (28-31 cm)
  • Weight: 3.9-5.6 oz (110-160 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.5-20.1 in (42-51 cm)

They can be spotted across all of the US and Canada, but those that breed in Canada migrate south for the winter.

Northern Flickers make a loud ringing call with a piercing yelp. They nest in tree cavities, and they lay 5-8 white eggs. They mainly eat ants and beetles and fruits and seeds and can often be seen on the ground digging them up with their curved bill.

Northern Flickers call and drumming:

Northern Flickers are quite large woodpeckers, and so their drumming is loud compared to smaller woodpeckers. They also make a long call that sounds like ‘flick – flick-flick’.

https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Ron Overholtz

Where to spot Northern Flickers:

Northern Flickers can be seen in open woods, forest edges, and parks, and suburbs. They are often on the ground foraging for food.

How to attract more Northern Flickers to your backyard feeders: 

Northern Flickers do not come as often to bird feeders, but they can be seen at a birdbath, so adding an attractive pedestal birdbath or a heated birdbath for the winter is your best bet.  You can try to encourage them by having black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, suet, cracked corn, peanuts, and millet on suet cages, large hoppers, or platform feeders.

You can also put up a nest box suitable for flickers to attract a breeding pair and plant berry-producing plants like grape, bayberries, hackberries, or elderberries.

3. Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker
Male
Hairy woodpecker female
Female

In winter, Hairy Woodpeckers are the third most frequently spotted woodpecker in Alberta and appear in over 16% of checklists. They appear in 6% of checklists in summer, but they do not migrate.

Hairy Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with a black and white pattern and a large white patch on their backs. The males have a flash of red towards the back of their heads.

  • Length: 7.1-10.2 in (18-26 cm)
  • Weight: 1.4-3.4 oz (40-95 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.0-16.1 in (33-41 cm)

Hairy Woodpeckers are visually similar to the Downy woodpecker but larger, and they have a longer bill.  As it is often found in the same areas, it is hard to tell them apart.

They can be found across all US states and most of Canada and into Mexico. They can be seen on backyard feeders and are powerful small birds that make a whinnying sound or explosive peak calls.

Hairy Woodpeckers’ diet is mostly insects such as beetle larvae, ants, and bark beetles, but they will also eat bees, caterpillars, spiders, moth pupae, and millipedes.

This Woodpecker nests in the cavities of dead trees or dead parts of trees and lay between 3-6 white eggs.

Hairy Woodpecker sounds

The hairy Woodpeckers drum sounds similar to the Downy Woodpecker, but it is faster, and you cannot hear the individual drums as clearly.

Credit: https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Richard Webster

Where to spot Hairy Woodpeckers:

You can find Hairy Woodpeckers in woodlands on trunks or main branches of large trees, but they are also found in a wide variety of habitats, including woodlots, parks, and cemeteries.

How to attract more Hairy Woodpeckers to your backyard

Hairy Woodpeckers benefit from squirrel-proof suet feeders with a cage to stop larger birds from taking all the turns.  Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Hairy Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in a great combination suet and hopper feeder, then you get two feeders in one.

4. Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker for identification in west virginia

Pileated Woodpeckers are considered an accidental species in Alberta, but they appear in checklists 4% in summer and 6% in winter.

The Pileated Woodpecker is the biggest Woodpecker in North America, and with its’ flaming-red triangular crest, it is very striking.

It is one of the biggest woodpeckers being nearly the size of a crow. It is mostly black with a white stripe, and when flying, the white underside of the wings can be seen. Males have an additional red stripe on the cheek.

  • Length: 15.8-19.3 in (40-49 cm)
  • Weight: 8.8-12.3 oz (250-350 g)
  • Wingspan: 26.0-29.5 in (66-75 cm)

They live all year in Eastern US states, across Canada, and into Northwestern US states.

Pileated Woodpeckers mostly eat carpenter ants from dead trees and fallen logs, but they also eat beetle larvae, termites, and other insects as well as fruit and nuts such as blackberries, sumac berries, dogwood, and elderberry.  They make a loud shrill, whinnying call and deep, loud drumming.

Dead trees are used for nesting sites for Pileated Woodpeckers, and they usually make a new one each year, so the old nest site is often used by other species of birds.  They usually lay 3-5 white eggs.

Pileated Woodpecker call and drumming:

Pileated Woodpeckers drum is loud and booming due to their size. They also make a ‘wuk-wuk-wuk’ call and one that sounds like laughing.

Credit: https://www.xeno-canto.org/ Peter Ward and Ken Hall

Where to spot Pileated Woodpeckers: 

They are usually found in mature forests or drowned forests with lots of dead trees, but they also visit backyard feeders, especially for suet. They make distinctive rectangular holes in trees, so look out for these.

How to attract more Pileated Woodpeckers to your backyard:

Pileated Woodpeckers come to backyard bird feeders, especially for suet. They also eat black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts, and mealworms. Also, try putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair.

Pileated woodpeckers prefer suet feeders with tail props and enjoy suet with added mealworms.

5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

yellow bellied sapsucker
Male
yellow-bellied sapsucker femalefor identification in Michigan MN
Female

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are not very common woodpeckers in Alberta, but they can be spotted here during summer for the breeding season, then they fly south for winter. They appear in 6% of summer checklists.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are relatively small and are about the size of a robin.  They are mostly black with red foreheads, and the male has a red throat.

  • Length: 7.1-8.7 in (18-22 cm)
  • Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz (43-55 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.4-15.8 in (34-40 cm)

They migrate from Canada and Northeastern US states after breeding in the summer and spend the winter in the Southern US and Mexico.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make holes in trees and use their brush-tipped tongues to get the sap out. They make neat rows of holes in horizontal rows, so look out for these in young paper birch, yellow birch, red or sugar maple, and hickory trees.

The holes need to be maintained to ensure a flow of sap.  They make a loud mewing call, and they nest in tree cavities and usually have 5-6 white eggs.

Where to spot Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers:

Young deciduous forests often on birch or maple trees where they make neat rows of sapwells to feed.

How to attract more Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to your backyard:

Although not usually found at bird feeders, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers sometimes will come for suet.

6. American Three-toed Woodpecker

Three toed woodpecker

Although rare woodpeckers in Alberta, American Three-toed Woodpeckers can be seen across the province all year and do not migrate.

American Three-toed Woodpeckers have a yellow patch on the forehead, with black backs with white barring and white spots on the wings. They are white underneath with black barring on their sides.

They look similar to Black-backed Woodpeckers, but they are smaller. Females lack the yellow patch and have black foreheads.

  • Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21-23 cm)
  • Weight: 1.6-2.4 oz (44.8-67.9 g)
  • Wingspan: 14.6-15.3 in (37-39 cm)

Although small, they are very powerful as they have three toes instead of the usual four, which allows them to lean back further.

Mostly found in Canada and Alaska, but American Three-toed Woodpeckers are also found further south down the western mountains down to Oregon and Nevada and as far as Arizona and New Mexico. Further east, they can be found in Michigan and Minnesota. They may move to lower elevations and from the far north in winter.

They prefer forests damaged by fire, flood, or storms that have lots of insects. They do not migrate and nest in May and June, laying up to 4 eggs. 

7. Black-backed Woodpecker

black-backed woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpeckers are very rare in Alberta, but during winter, they can be spotted around Edmonton and Calgary.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are small, so they are hard to spot, as they are only robin-sized, with a black back helping them to blend in.  They have black and white stripes on their sides and a mostly white underbelly.  The male has a yellow cap.

  • Length: 9.1 in (23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.1-3.1 oz (61-88 g)
  • Wingspan: 15.8-16.5 in (40-42 cm

Black-backed Woodpeckers do not migrate, and they predominantly live in Canada and Alaska and some down parts of the Western US as far as California. They occasionally move south looking for food, especially after fires leave lots of dead trees, which are perfect for them.

It specializes in eating wood-boring beetle larvae, especially in newly burned forests.  It does this by flaking the bark off the dead trees, so burnt forests are your best bet on seeing the Black-backed Woodpecker.  They make a single sharp pik call.

They are one of the less common woodpeckers with three toes rather than most species that have four. They are similar to the American Three-toed Woodpecker but without the white patch on their backs.

Black-backed Woodpeckers make a new nest hole for every nesting attempt, which is great for other birds that rely on ready-made nest holes, and lay 3-4 white eggs.

Where to spot Black-backed Woodpeckers:  

The Black-backed Woodpecker is found in forests that have had fires in the last eight years.

How to attract more Black-backed Woodpeckers to your backyard:

Black-backed Woodpeckers are not usually seen at backyard bird feeders as they eat mostly beetle larvae in burned forests.

8. Lewis’s Woodpecker

Credit: Mike Bird

Lewis’s Woodpeckers are considered an accidental species in Alberta but can be spotted in Jasper National Park and Banff National Park.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers look like a completely different bird species, catching insects on the wing rather than hammering on trees. Then there is the pink belly, gray collar, and dark back with a dark red face to set it apart from its family.

  • Length: 10.2-11.0 in (26-28 cm)
  • Weight: 3.1-4.9 oz (88-138 g)
  • Wingspan: 19.3-20.5 in (49-52 cm)

Lewis Woodpeckers can be found from as far north as British Columbia and down to California and Texas. They tend to breed further north in British Columbia, east to  Wyoming, and south to Nevada before migrating south to southwestern states. Those on the Pacific Coast tend to remain all year, as do those in the southeast of their range.

As well as eating flying insects, Acorn Woodpeckers also eat nuts and fruit, and they will store them in crevices of cottonwood trees in winter.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers do not make their own nests, preferring instead to us those created by other woodpeckers, and they lay 5 – 9 eggs.

9. Red-bellied Woodpecker

red-bellied woodpecker
Male
Red-bellied woodpecker female
Female

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are considered an accidental or rare species in Alberta, and according to records, there have last been sighted in Magrath in 2019.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be mistaken for Red-headed Woodpeckers as they have red caps, but they are much smaller than the Red-headed Woodpecker. Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers lack the red cap and only have red napes.

  • Length: 9.4 in (24 cm)
  • Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.0-16.5 in (33-42 cm)

They have a very pale red belly that can be hard to spot but have the typical black and white markings over their backs.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be found in the Eastern US, and they do not migrate.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers can often be seen at bird feeders, especially if you live near wooded areas. They make a distinctive loud rolling call which means you will often hear them before you see them.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat insects, spiders, seeds from grasses, fruit, and nuts. They will also sometimes eat nestlings. They nest in dead trees and may use the same nest year after year. They lay 4-5 white eggs on a bed of wood chips.

The tongue of the Red-bellied Woodpecker sticks out 2 inches past the beak and is barbed at the tip, along with sticky spit. This helps catch prey from deep crevices.

Red-bellied Woodpecker call and drumming

They make a shrill call and drum against trees at about 19 beats per second.

Where to spot Red-bellied Woodpeckers:

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are common in woodlands and forests in the eastern US but can be seen on bird feeders.

How to attract more Red-bellied Woodpeckers to your backyard feeders: 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers will come to backyards for suet and black oil sunflower seeds. They can also be seen on hummingbird feeders and will feed on fruit. Also, plant native berry trees such as hawthorn or mountain-ash.

10. Red-headed Woodpecker

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered an accidental species in Alberta, but a few have been spotted around Calgary over the past 10 years.

With their bright red-heads and black and white bold markings, these woodpeckers are one of the easiest to identify. Red-headed Woodpeckers are medium-sized with powerful spike bills. They have white undersides, black backs and large white bands on the wings, and short tails.

  • Length: 7.5-9.1 in (19-23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.5 in (42 cm)

Red-headed Woodpeckers can be found in Eastern and Central US states and into southern Canada. Those in the north and east of the range may migrate further east and south depending on acorn crops.

They can fiercely defend their territories, even removing or destroying the eggs of other birds or ducks.  Red-headed Woodpeckers will catch insects in flight as well as in crevices like other woodpeckers.

Insects such as beetles, midges, honeybees, and grasshoppers, make up only about one-third of their diet. The other two-thirds are plant materials such as seeds, nuts, and berries. Red-headed Woodpeckers will also take nestlings or eggs from other birds and sometimes mice.

Red-headed Woodpeckers make a shrill call and nest in tree cavities, sometimes reusing a site, and lay 4-5 white eggs.  Unfortunately, huge declines of 70% of Red-headed Woodpeckers have occurred between 1966 to 2014 due to habitat loss.

Where to spot Red-headed Woodpeckers:

They can be found in open woodlots, farms, dead timber in swamps, or pine savannas. Sometimes they visit backyard bird feeders.

How to attract Red-headed Woodpeckers to your backyard feeder:

Red-headed Woodpeckers visit backyards for suet.

11. Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are accidental species in Alberta, and according to records, there have only been a couple of sightings, and the last was in Jasper National Park in 2007.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with dark red heads and breasts. They have a white line down the wing when folded and a white spot in front of their eye. Males and females look the same, but juveniles are darker and without the bright red head. Red-breasted Sapsuckers are redder on the head in northern areas than those in California.

  • Length: 7.9-8.7 in (20-22 cm)
  • Weight: 1.9-2.2 oz (53.1-63.5 g)
  • Wingspan: 14.6-16.0 in (37-40.6 cm)

Red-breasted Sapsuckers migrate towards the coast from inland breeding areas in British Columbia and California, but they remain all year along the whole Pacific Coast from the British Columbia to Baja Califonia.

They feed on sap from trees but also insects and fruit.

Where to find Red-breasted Sapsuckers:

Red-breasted Sapsuckers can be found in conifer forests, so look out for rows of shallow holes in the bark of trees.

How to attract Red-breasted Sapsuckers to your yard:

Sapsuckers do not as often come to backyards unless you have lots of conifer trees, but they may be tempted with cut fruit.

12. Williamson’s Sapsucker

Male Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are accidental species in Alberta. According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), two of the Alberta records were from Waterton Lakes National Park, with the other from Calgary.

Williamson’s Sapsucker males are more black than many woodpeckers with a glossy black back, vertical wing patches, red throat, and yellow belly.

Females have the more common black and white pattern on their back, and they have a brown head and black breast patch.

  • Length: 8.3-9.8 in (21-25 cm)
  • Weight: 1.6-1.9 oz (44-55 g)

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are migratory and spend the summer breeding in the mountainous west and the winter in southern states and Mexico.

Mainly feeding on sap from conifer trees, especially in spring, and then more insects such as ants, beetles, and flies in summer. Winter food is often fruit and seeds.

13. Acorn Woodpecker

acorn woodpecker

Acorn Woodpeckers are accidental species in Alberta. They are extremely rare, and there is one accepted record by the Alberta Bird Records Committee of a bird photographed near Sundre, Alberta, in 2006.

Acorn Woodpeckers have distinctive clown-like faces with red caps, white faces, a black patch around the beak, and black over the back of their heads and back. Their bellies are white with black markings. Female Acorn Woodpeckers have less red on the crowns than males.

  • Length: 7.5-9.1 in (19-23 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3-3.2 oz (65-90 g)
  • Wingspan: 13.8-16.9 in (35-43 cm)

Acorn Woodpeckers are quite different than most woodpeckers in that they live in large groups and hoard acorns. They live in oak forests in western Oregon, California, and across to Texas, and down through Mexico to Central America.

They may look like clowns but it’s no laughing matter when it comes to eating, as the gruesome Acorn Woodpecker stores dead bugs in a ‘pantry’ and even eat the eggs of their own species!

Masses of holes drilled in winter in dead trees provide the perfect pantry, known as a granary tree,  for acorns and other nuts collected by the Acorn Woodpecker. They will even check stored acorns and move them to smaller holes once they dry out and shrink.

Insects are not left out when it comes to storage, but this gruesome pantry of dead bugs is often left in cracks or crevices. Fruit and sap provide other food sources, as do eggs, including eggs of their own species.

Where to Spot Acorn Woodpeckers:

Oak forests are the best place to spot them, as looking out for their guarded pantry stash and listening for their parrot-like squawks is an easy way to find these sociable birds.

How to Attract Acorn Woodpeckers to Your Backyard:

You may find Acorn Woodpeckers an unwelcome visitor as they are known to drill holes in wood siding and utility poles as this is considered deadwood! You may still get them visiting if you live near oak forests.

How Frequently Woodpeckers are Spotted in Alberta in Summer and Winter

Checklists for the state are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted. These lists show which woodpeckers are most commonly recorded on checklists for Alberta on ebird in summer and winter.

Woodpeckers in Alberta in Summer:

Northern Flicker 21.0%
Downy Woodpecker 12.9%
Hairy Woodpecker 6.8%
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 5.8%
Pileated Woodpecker 3.7%
American Three-toed Woodpecker 0.9%
Black-backed Woodpecker 0.3%
Lewis’s Woodpecker 0.1%
Red-headed Woodpecker <0.1%
Red-breasted Sapsucker <0.1%
Red-bellied Woodpecker <0.1%

Woodpeckers in Alberta in Winter:

Downy Woodpecker 37.0%
Northern Flicker 21.2%
Hairy Woodpecker 16.8%
Pileated Woodpecker 6.2%
American Three-toed Woodpecker 1.4%
Black-backed Woodpecker 0.8%
Red-bellied Woodpecker <0.1%