The hairy woodpecker is a woodpecker common to most of North America. This article describes the habitat of the hairy woodpecker, its call and appearance, how to distinguish the hairy woodpecker from the more common downy woodpecker, and provides information about the hairy woodpecker’s nesting behaviors and diet — including what will best attract hairy woodpeckers to a backyard feeder.
Range, Habitat, and Population
The hairy woodpecker’’s range is large and covers nearly all of the United States, with the exception of inland Washington State and Oregon, the California Desert, and much of Texas. The hairy woodpecker primarily inhabits old-growth deciduous or coniferous forests but can be found in nearly any habitat where there are large trees.
While the old-growth forests that the hairy woodpecker depends on for food and shelter are increasingly fragmentary, and the species’ population has declined slightly over the last decade, the hairy woodpecker is certainly in no danger of extinction. The 2016 Partners in Hight Landbird Conservation Plan estimated that there were eight and a half million hairy woodpeckers in the United States and Canada.
The hairy woodpecker does not migrate typically, but those in the extreme north of the range — northern Canada and inland Alaska — may fly south for winter.
Appearance and Identification
Lengths range from six and a half to 10 inches and wingspans from 13 to 16 inches. The hairy woodpecker’s head is white, with black stripes that run from its beak to the rear neck. The underparts of the hairy woodpecker are gray-white, and its wings are black and speckled with spots of white, usually brighter than the white of its underparts. The hairy woodpecker’s back, in between its wings, is a similar shade of white as the spots on its wings. The bill of the hairy woodpecker, which is about the same length as the head, is a dark gray or slate color. The legs and feet are colored similarly.
It may be hard to distinguish the hairy woodpecker from the smaller and more common downy woodpecker, whose plumage nearly identical to that of the hairy woodpecker’s. Size and shape can help you tell the two species apart — the hairy woodpecker is visibly longer than the downy woodpecker and also sports a rounder head and thicker bill.
There are also slight variations in feather quality and coloration: unlike the downy woodpecker, the hairy woodpecker lacks black spots on its outer tail feathers, and the feathers of the hairy woodpecker’s bill are a light brownish-red or rust color, while the feathers on a downy woodpecker’s bill are more white. The hairy woodpecker may also appear Slightly scragglier than the downy woodpecker, with looser-looking underbelly feathers that visibly curl up and over its wings when they are folded back.
The plumage of the male and female hairy woodpecker are identical, except for a red patch on the back of the male’s head. (This same difference also can be observed in the downy woodpecker.) Females are slightly smaller than males. Juvenile hairy woodpeckers have noticeably duller feathers, but otherwise look the same as adults.
You may hear the hairy woodpecker’s beak — drumming on the bark of a tree — before you hear its call. The hairy woodpecker’s drum is percussive, high-pitched, and rapid in succession. The drumming is believed to serve a number of social purposes and might mean a hairy woodpecker is establishing or defending its territory, or is engaging in courtship with another hairy woodpecker.
The hairy woodpecker also has a range of vocalizations. The most common is a short and sharp call, a pik or peek sound. The hairy woodpecker also makes a rattling or whinnying call.
Diet and Feeding
Like most woodpeckers, the hairy woodpecker primarily feeds on insects that live under the bark of trees, such as wood-boring and bark beetles, ants, or moth pupae. In foraging, the hairy woodpecker is lively, leaping up the bark in quick bursts of movement. The hairy woodpecker will then scour the surface of the tree for insects, or search under the bark by quickly tapping along the wood, hunting for hollow areas within the tree — the tell-tale sign of a wood-boring beetle or larva. When it finds such a hollow section, the hairy woodpecker will pry off the bark and dig into the tree in search of the insect.
Any condition that causes a boom in the population of insects that live inside trees will cause an increase in the population of hairy woodpeckers — for example, wood-borers and bark beetles thrive in the wake of forest fires that scorch trees, but leave them standing. If there’s been a forest fire in your area recently, the hairy woodpecker may not be an unusual sight.
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