Small birds in Alaska

18 Small Birds in Alaska: Wonders in The Last Frontier

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Alaska is a state most well-known for its wildlife, including its huge moose, grizzlies, and eagles.

But what about some love for the little guys? Alaska might not be a hotbed for hummingbirds, North America’s smallest birds, but there are plenty of small birds that call the state home, including two hummingbirds whose ranges reach their northernmost points in Alaska.

Given their status as the smallest birds, let’s start our list with the hummers.

Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbird

Annas Hummingbird
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The rufous hummingbird breeds in the Pacific Northwest, with the southern end of its range nearly matching the California-Oregon border as well as Idaho and western Montana. They continue to breed throughout British Columbia and along the southern edge of Alaska as far as areas like Kenai Fjords National Park and Kachemak Bay.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it’s the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird in the world, as well as the longest migration route.

The department states that the longest migration ever documented was a rufous hummingbird’s 3,530-mile trip from Florida to Alaska in 2010.

Sightings of Anna’s hummingbirds are less frequent, according to reports from eBird users, but you could still spot one along the Alexander Archipelago and up to the Gulf of Alaska.


Common swift
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Hummingbirds may seem like a group of their own, not closely related to any other modern bird. Their closest relatives are the swifts and tree swifts, though their split from these species is millions and millions of years old.

University of California-Berkeley’s Jimmy McGuire and his colleagues collected DNA and found that hummingbirds branched off of their sister group, the swifts and tree swifts, about 42 million years ago, according to the California Academy of Sciences.

That’s plenty of time to develop some serious differences in size, appearance, and habits.

Like hummingbirds, swifts are not the most common in Alaska, but Vaux’s swifts and black swifts can sometimes be seen in the summer months at the tip of the southeast.

Swifts are fast-flying birds that are rarely seen sitting still. Some of them are also getting more rare.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, Partners in Flight estimates that at current rates of decline, black swifts will lose half of their global population of 210,000 by 2033.


Barn swallow in flight
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Closely resembling swifts, the tree swallow, violet-green swallow, bank swallow, barn swallow, and cliff swallow all breed in parts of Alaska.

Swallows are frequent occupants of nest boxes in open areas, where they spend most of their time zipping through the air, picking off insects to eat.

In much of America, swallow species are common and familiar, though populations are not always stable. In Alaska, the barn swallow was listed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a species “of greatest conservation need” as of 2019, and according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the species saw a 44% decline between 1966 and 2015.

BirdLife International states that modern farms have more scarce nesting sites than the farms of old while changing farming practices have seen the loss of certain feeding areas.

Multiple swallow species also face competition for nesting sites, including from invasive house sparrows, though that isn’t a problem in the northernmost state, where house sparrows have not established their presence.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
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The only woodpecker that we’d probably classify as “small,” the downy woodpecker is a little woodpecker that’s widespread across much of North America, from Florida up to Alaska.

According to All About Birds, they measure between 5.5 and 6.7 inches and weigh between three-quarters of an ounce to an ounce. While it’s certainly not going to challenge for the title of smallest bird, it certainly feels small if you’re expecting some of its larger relatives.

They look almost identical to the larger hairy woodpecker, also a year-round resident of Alaska. Their size is the first clue as to which one you’re looking at, but after that, look to the bill. Downy woodpeckers have smaller bills – both in actual size and proportion to their body – than the hairy woodpecker.

If you’re still having trouble, the third-best identifier between the two are small dark markings on the white outer tail feathers of the downy woodpecker that are absent on the larger hairy woodpecker.

New-World Flycatchers

Spotted flycatcher
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Alaska is home to seven American flycatcher species: the olive-sided flycatcher, western wood-pewee, western flycatcher, alder flycatcher, Hammond’s flycatcher, Pacific-slope flycatcher, and Say’s phoebe.

The last bird on that list is the long-tailed Say’s phoebe, which has a wide range that occupies most of inland Alaska.

They’re comfortable around people – so comfortable that they may nest on buildings and be seen hanging around typically human-occupied locations.

Apart from the western flycatcher, which occupies southeast Alaska, the other flycatchers on this list are also more likely to be seen in inland areas from eastern to central Alaska.

Old-World Flycatchers

bluethroat flycatcher
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Given its proximity to Russia, Alaska is home to several typically Eurasian species, including two old-world flycatcher species, the bluethroat and northern wheatear.

The bluethroat in particular is a beautiful bird with males sporting a sky blue and orange throat as well as orange along the tail and breast.

In Alaska, the bluethroat is restricted to the tundra of the northern part of the state during the breeding season, but its range in the rest of the world is much more expansive, reaching from the Russian tundra to warmer parts of Europe.

In winter, bluethroats mostly make their way to Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.

The northern wheatear, a widespread European bird found in almost all of Europe as well as parts of Asia during breeding months, is more widespread in Alaska than the bluethroat.

Come the fall, these striking birds with well-defined sections of gray, black, and buffy or tan will head all the way to Africa, then return in the spring to take up residence in tundras, open meadows, and other open spaces.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird
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The mountain bluebird is the only one of North America’s three bluebird species to call Alaska home, and some birders might argue that it’s the most striking of the three.

Females are mostly gray with a bit of blue along their rear tail feathers, but males are a brilliant shade of cerulean blue that deepens along the wings and lightens in certain other spots, giving them a very pleasing appearance.

Their range in this northern state mostly avoids the coastal areas, reaching through the open Alaskan country to about the Yukon River.


Black-Capped Chickadee
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Four of North America’s six chickadee species – the black-capped chickadee, chestnut-backed chickadee, boreal chickadee, and gray-headed chickadee – reside in Alaska for at least some part of the year. Unsurprisingly, the Carolina chickadee does not, nor does the Rocky Mountains’ mountain chickadee.

The black-capped chickadee is most of North America’s most common chickadee, and for some of the other species, you’ll have to look closely to decipher any small differences.

Black-capped chickadees have buffy undersides, with black caps and chins, separated by a section of white.

Chestnut-backed chickadees have similar facial patterns, but their backs and sides are a warm chestnut brown compared to the light tan black-capped chickadee sides.

The boreal chickadee has a similar pattern but a chocolate-brown cap.

The latter is more commonly found in coniferous forests than the black-capped chickadee, though that’s not to say black-capped chickadees can’t be found among the pines or firs.

North America’s most rare chickadee, the gray-headed chickadee, also resides in northern interior Alaska. In Europe, the species is called the Siberian tit, and it’s better known there, according to the National Audubon Society.

There aren’t many roads or people where this bird resides, so it’s a rare check mark on birders’ life lists.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
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Common backyard birds across much of Canada and the northern United States year-round, the red-breasted nuthatch is restricted to southern Alaska.

Much of the time that birders spot a red-breasted nuthatch away from feeders, it’s attached to the trunk of a tree, often in a downward-facing position with its body curved away from the base of the tree.

While migration habits differ from bird to bird and region to region, red-breasted nuthatches don’t typically hang around northern breeding grounds too long.

According to All About Birds, they start their southward migration by early July in many cases.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper
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Another small bird that’s frequently seen glued to a tree trunk is the inconspicuous brown creeper, which occupies a similar range to the red-breasted nuthatch.

Fairbanks forms about the northernmost extent of the brown creeper’s Alaskan range.

Their white undersides and bold sounds give them away more than their brown patterned backsides do, but you may still be able to spot the movement of their brown patterns as they bounce around trees.

They have beady black eyes and a thin, downward-curving bill.

Have a listen to their interesting song:

Pacific Wren

Pacific Wren
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The only wren in Alaska, Pacific wrens can measure as little as three inches long. They’re year-round Alaskans along the entire southern coastal region from the southeast to the Aleutian Islands.

They’re quick movers through old-growth conifer forests, and even if their little brown bodies and upright tails aren’t familiar, you’ve maybe heard their beautiful song ring out as you’ve taken a hike through a West Coast pine forest.

Pacific wrens are full of interesting behaviors. One is that they will sometimes gather near northwestern streams when Salmon are migrating to feed on insects that are attracted to the carcasses of dead salmon, according to All About Birds.

They also group up into nest boxes when the weather turns cold, which may be especially applicable in Alaska at the northern edge of their range. All About Birds reports that in Washington, as many as 31 Pacific wrens have been found huddled together in one nest box.

Wood Warblers

Wood Warblers
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Warblers bring a splash of color to Alaska each spring, including the common yellow warbler, whose all-yellow body can be seen across almost all of The Last Frontier each summer.

Alaska’s other breeding wood warblers in the interior of the state include the northern waterthrush, Townsend’s warbler, orange-crowned warbler, blackpoll warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, and Wilson’s warbler.

There are also a few breeding warblers in Alaska that breed only in the most southeastern portion of Alaska. These southeast-only breeders include the Tennessee warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, common yellowthroat, and American redstart.

No wood warblers remain in Alaska past the fall.

Arctic Warbler

Phylloscopus borealis
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What’s the difference between a wood warbler and a leaf warbler?

The latter were formerly placed in the Old World warbler family but in the 21st century, they were added to their own family, Phylloscopidae.

Consistent with the Old World warblers, they’re mostly European and Asian species. The arctic warbler is North America’s only leaf warbler. It breeds primarily in Europe and Asia, but its range stretches to western Alaska.

It’s a dull olive-ish bird with faintly visible yellow wing bars. Its standout marking is an eyebrow marking that can vary in how yellow it is. Some may appear more yellow, whereas others are pale.

Most North American breeding residents will move to Central America, South America, or warmer parts of the United States in the winter, but for the mostly Eurasian arctic warbler, Southeast Asia is the wintering ground of choice.

Golden-Crowned and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet
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Speaking of birds formerly considered to be Old World warblers, we have North America’s two kinglets and their brilliant crowns. Four additional species share the Regulidae family, but only these two live in North America.

Female ruby-crowned kinglets don’t have a crown at all, and males hide their crown much of the time, but when it’s revealed, it’s hard to miss.

Ruby-crowned kinglets everywhere are small, but birds in British Columbia and southern Alaska are often even smaller than in other parts of their range.

Their range is a mostly northern one, though parts of the American West can see them year-round down to Arizona and New Mexico. In Alaska, they occupy much of the state during the summer, save for the northern and western coastal areas of the state.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo
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The warbling vireo is widespread across much of the continental United States during breeding months, but its Alaskan range is mostly confined to the southeast, where it sings its namesake warbling song throughout wooded areas:

It’s the only one of North America’s vireos frequently present in any part of The Last Frontier.

The name vireo derives from a Latin word referring to the color green, but the warbling vireo is really more of a yellow on the underside – a very light, pale yellow with a gray topside.

Western birds like those in Alaska are frequently a bit less yellow than those in the eastern United States, according to All About Birds.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark
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You can file the horned lark under ‘unique,’ at least for males, which have two signature black horns curling inward from the outside of the head, as well as a yellow face and black eye mask. Females won’t be filed under the same category, with less inspiring browns and tan colorings.

They’re year-round residents in much of the U.S., but in Alaska and most of Canada, they leave in the fall.

Horned larks live in wide open spaces, and are almost exclusively seen along the ground in patches of limited vegetation, where they can blend right in with the dirt floor, besides the little splashes of color along the male’s face.


chipping sparrow
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Alaska – along with Hawaii – is unique in that it isn’t home to the invasive house sparrow, which has colonized every state, as well as much of Canada, Central America, and South America.

As for native North American sparrows, Alaska sees the chipping sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, American tree sparrow, fox sparrow, dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned sparrow, Savannah sparrow, song sparrow, and Lincoln’s sparrow during breeding months.

The southeast may see year-round sparrows like the fox sparrow and dark-eyed junco.

Those two sparrows are on the bookends of Alaskan sparrows when it comes to size. The dark-eyed junco is a little round bird, while the fox sparrow is large with bold, splotchy colors.


red crossbill
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Among Alaska’s finches are North America’s two species of crossbills – the red crossbill and white-winged crossbill. They have odd bills in which the top of the bill overlaps with the bottom half in a sort of twisting appearance.

Red crossbills are year-round residents in southeast Alaska as far north as Chugach National Forest, and they can even breed in the winter as long as their favorite meal of pinecones is available enough, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The same goes for white-winged crossbills, which have even wider Alaskan ranges, stretching from the southeast corner across much of interior Alaska. These birds can breed at any time of the year based on the presence of conifer seeds, of which they can eat up to 3,000 per day, via All About Birds.

Two iconic extreme northern birds are the common redpoll and hoary redpoll, which winters in much of Alaska and breeds in the most northern stretches of the high Arctic.

In rare years, hoary redpolls across northern Canada will join common redpolls on their southern migrations into the United States, but they’re comfortable spending the winter months in Alaska. Common redpolls also breed in northern Alaska and winter in the southern half of the state.

Other Alaskan finches include the pine grosbeak, gray-crowned rosy-finch, and pine siskin.

In Conclusion

These are surely not the only birds that you may consider small living within Alaskan borders. Some birders may consider the white wagtail, thrushes, or other songbirds small, while by proportion, some ducks are certainly smaller than others.

There’s plenty more to explore in Alaska, and Wild Bird Scoop has the tools to get you started, with more information about Alaska’s falcons, finches, wrens, sparrows, ducks, blackbirds, hummingbirds, owls, woodpeckers and hawks.

Happy birding!

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