When most people think of woodpeckers in these parts, normally Downy or their larger Hairy woodpecker cousins spring to mind. A little less common is the Pileated, and less common still (at least “less commonly seen”) is the Three-Toed Woodpecker, Picoides dorsalis.
Not the only 3 toed woodpecker
Three-Toed Woodpeckers aren’t the only woodpeckers with three toes instead of the normal four. The other is the Black Backed, and here, it starts to get confusing because the Black Back and Three-Toed are almost identical save for one small detail: Black Backs have a solid black back, and Three-Toed backs are barred (or laddered) black and white, and sometimes very white indeed. Otherwise, both Black Back and Three-Toed have a black and white laddered chest. Both males have a yellow head spot while both females have no yellow. Only Black Backs and Three-Toeds have a yellow spot; all others in this area have red colourations on their heads.
Look around and you’ll see lots of evidence of these woodpeckers. They flake the bark off trees to get at the bugs underneath, leaving the trees looking stripped, bare and red with their bases surrounded by bark bits, pictured at right. All other woodpeckers drill holes for their food.
While they don’t seem to be bothered by people watching them that much, they’re not all that common to see despite being common in the forest.
A or B?
There are two subspecies; the Eurasian and American, but the Eurasian one has been found in Canada. The American version has a second subspecies just found in Alaska that could be a result of the interbreeding of the Eurasian and American. It’s a boreal forest species. All Three-Toes are found in the forest band around the world in the northern hemisphere. It’s the most northerly woodpecker, with a range right up to the edge of the arctic tundra.
Home and away
Being woodpeckers, their nests are holes drilled in trees, normally over 4 meters up the tree. The Three-Toe at right is part the way through construction. They never re-use nests, but build a new one every year. Their abandoned nests become homes for other birds like Nuthatches and various Chickadees.
Three-Toed Woodpeckers don’t migrate, but can move up and down in elevation through the year. Their populations also tend to be a bit eruptive, as they’re especially responsive to bug outbreaks such as pine beetles.
Meet more of the cool critters of K-Country here!