American Three-Toed Woodpecker

Picoides dorsalis
Range Map

The American Three-Toed Woodpecker breeds farther north than any other woodpecker. Their native range is from Alaska and across most of Canada to the Atlantic coast. In the lower 48 states of the USA, they live from Idaho and western Montana south through the Rockies to parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Until 2003, the Three-Toed Woodpecker was lumped with the Eurasian bird (Picoides tridactylus) of the same common name. To avoid confusion, the preferred names were revised to “American Three-Toed Woodpecker” and “Eurasian Three-Toed Woodpecker”.

The best place to look for these birds is where there are stands of many dead, dying, or bore-beetle infested trees. Three-Toed Woodpeckers are not known to forage on tree branches or fallen logs. Instead, look for them on the trunks of standing trees.

This bird and the Black-Backed Woodpecker are the only two North American woodpeckers to have three (not four) toes. Both birds have yellow feathers on the head, but as its name implies, the Black-Backed Woodpecker has a solid black back, where the American Three-Toed Woodpecker has a white patch, blotched with dark spots.

Modern science recognises three subspecies of American Three-Toed Woodpecker:

  • P. d. fasciatus lives in Alaska, northwestern Canada and south to Oregon, Idaho, western Montana and northwestern Wyoming.
  • P. d. dorsalis lives in the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Nevada, Arizona and northwestern New Mexico.
  • P. d. bacatus lives in Canada in northern Manitoba and Ontario, Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, and south to the Great Lakes, New York, New Hampshire and Maine.

I first met this bird at Moon Lake, near Tok Alaska, and I did not meet them again until 2015 during a May visit to Jackson Wyoming.

11 Photos

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