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September 20, 2021

Return of Bird of the Week: Black-backed Woodpecker

Female Black-backed Woodpecker, Chena Hot Springs Road, Alaska
Ornithologists called the Black-backed Woodpecker “enigmatic” and the term is apt. It’s a bit of a specialist, inhabiting by preference damaged forests. Historically, in Alaska it was found reliably in recent forest fire burns, but with the increased numbers and extent of wildfires, it seems to be more dispersed now. It also prefers forests invaded by various tree-eating/wood-boring beetles, yet has not extended its Alaska range into southern Alaska in response to the massive invasion of bark beetles there. This is primarily a boreal forest species, ranging across the forests of central Alaska and Canada, but is also found in the northern Rockies and Cascades. Ornithologists struggle to understand the species’ range, which doesn’t seem to be defined by anything they can identify. Black-backeds are irruptive, with large numbers moving south out of their normal boreal and mountain forest habitat in some winters, yet it has not colonized the forests of the central and southern Rocky Mountains. It’s not common in any part of its range, making population counts difficult. It’s reasonably well studied, but still more than a little mysterious. A Black-backed Woodpecker is about 9.5 inches long; males are slightly larger than females and have a bright yellow cap. WC really needs to get a photo of a male. They nest in a cavity they excavate each year, and lay an average of four eggs. Even in Interior Alaska, where the winters are pretty grim, they are generally year-round residents. The reason or reasons for those irregular irruptions south are not well understood. Alaska’s own Ed Murphy and Dan Gibson have done some of the important research on this species. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. For more bird photographs, please visit Frozen Feather Images.



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