Bird of the Month: Hairy Woodpecker
By Hugh Jennings
Scientific Name: Picoides villosis
Length 9.25" long
Weight 2.3oz. (66 g)
AOU Band code HAWO
A bird of the forest that loves large trees, the Hairy Woodpecker is an exciting bird to see. It is often found hammering on the trunk or tree limb in search of larvae of wood-boring beetles, other beetles, ants and other larvae. It will also eat some berries and nuts, and feed at the sap sites of sapsuckers.
The Hairy Woodpecker is one of nine pied or spotted woodpeckers that make up the genus Picoides, to resemble the great black woodpecker, from the Latin picus, the great black woodpecker, and –oides, to resemble. The Hairy’s species named villosus, Latin for shaggy or hairy, refers to the bristles covering the nostrils. It most closely resembles the Downy Woodpecker P. pubescens, a much smaller but similarly patterned woodpecker.
Four identification marks are handy in separating the two woodpeckers in the field. The Hairy has all white outer tail feathers. The Downy has several black bars on the out tail feathers. The Hairy has a much heavier and longer bill which is about the same length as the width of its head. The Downy has a smaller, daintier bill which is about half the width of its head. The Hairy, being a heavier bird, is more often seen on the trunks and large branches of trees. The Downy can be seen on the outer branches of trees and on shrubs. Both species have a white eyebrow, also called a nuchal bar, that goes to the back of the head. On the Downy the white line connects at the back of the head. On the Hairy there is often a vertical black line dividing the bar, even when red feathers of the male are present (Alderfer).
In general the Hairy Woodpeckers are permanent residents where they breed, but some northern individuals may migrate south and a few western mountain birds will move to lower elevations in winter (Kaufman). They prefer forests and woodlands and shade trees as their preferred habitat as long as large trees are present. Hairy Woodpeckers begin to pair up in winter with a courtship display of duet drumming. Together the western pair excavates a nest site in aspens or dead conifers, where eastern birds use deciduous trees. Typically four white eggs are deposited and both sexes incubate them. Nestlings hatch in about two weeks, and can make a first flight about four weeks later (Kaufman).
Seventeen subspecies of the Hairy Woodpecker were recognized over 100 years ago. The northwestern subspecies P. v. harrisi was called Harris’ Woodpecker and considered restricted to “the humid coast belt from Southern British Columbia southward to Humboldt County in California” (Bent). In 1909, it was considered by some, “to be the most abundant Woodpecker in Western Washington; and this, with the possible exception of the Flicker…, is still true” (Bent). Harris’ woodpecker, like many other races of the humid Northwest coast region, is darkly colored…” (Bent).
This, of course was in the time before extensive logging of the northwest’s forests. Declines in Hairy Woodpecker populations have been noted and are thought to be due to forest fragmentation, loss of old-growth trees, and nest site competition from European Starlings (Alderfer). Cutting of dead snags has also reduced the number of possible nesting sites (Kaufman).
The hairy bristles on covering the nostrils of both the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers is thought to keep sawdust out of the breathing passages.