For the Birds: Hairy Woodpecker—Watch the Bill

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hairy Woodpecker, male. Photo by Doug Parrott
By Christine Southwick

There’s a black and coffee-stained-white woodpecker hitching up a nearby tree, and you wonder, “Is it a Hairy Woodpecker, or is it a Downy Woodpecker? How can I tell the difference?”

If the woodpecker is close, size is a good key. The Hairy Woodpecker is a medium sized woodpecker, while the Downy Woodpecker is barely larger than the Red-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees it joins in the wintertime mixed flock. Size can be hard to gauge when the bird is high in a large tree.

Hairy female, note stiff tail.  Photo by Craig Kerns
Sound is one of the best clues. The loud whinny is a level tone, not descending at the end like the Downy’s whinny (remember Downy=whinny going down). The Hairy’s call is a loud, almost explosive PEEK.

But the real cincher is the difference in bill size. The Hairy has a bill that is about as long as its head profile ; the Downy’s bill is less than half its head profile. Once you see the bill, most doubts will be squelched.

Hairy’s need large conifers where they can find their favorite meals of bark and wood-boring beetle larvae. Due to their larger size, Hairy’s forage on bigger branches and trunks than their diminutive Downy cousins, so each has their own niche for food gathering. Hairy’s will often extract sap from sapsucker holes in the wintertime, and they will readily come to suet feeders all year long.

Because of their need for large, old, often dead or burned conifers, the population of Hairy Woodpeckers seems to be declining, although they are still the most commonly seen woodpecker in the Cascades. Here in the northwest, Hairy’s commonly use large cottonwoods or alders for their nest cavities. They will readily use large snags, and leaving a dead, or partially dead, tree will attract them into your yard.

Hairy juvenile. Photo by Craig Kerns
Most Hairy’s are seasonally-monogamous residents, and will often pair with a previous partner. Both parents make the cavity hole, incubate the four eggs, and feed and teach their young for a couple of months after that. No wonder they only have one brood a year…

Males have a red spot on the back of their heads, females do not. Most juveniles have a reddish wash on the top of their heads—it is thought that this may help the parents locate the current nestlings, since a nest tree usually has several old nest holes.

So, leave those ugly (to you) dead limbs and hang a suet feeder, then sit back and watch. You will be rewarded with one of our woodpecker species, maybe even a Hairy Woodpecker.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


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