Male Hairy Woodpecker (left) and Downy Woodpecker (right), Photoshopped for size comparison.  Photo courtesy of John Hess

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Two of our most delightful winter residents are the look-alike diminutive Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), and the larger Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus). The Downy is the most common eastern woodpecker and because of its tolerance of humans, is a favorite of nature writers and spectators.

The Downy and Hairy inhabit southern Canada and the entire United States from Alaska to Florida, with the exception of the driest southwest. Both can be anywhere from the interior of forest preserves to back yards and parks

Downies average 6 to 7 inches long; Hairies average 3 inches longer. Both have black wings decorated with white spots, although Downy wings tend to be more spotted. Both are black on the top of the head, have a wide white stripe above the eye, a wide black eye stripe, and a white cheek patch. Their nostrils are covered by buff-colored bristly feathers. Downy bellies are a dullish grey-white. Hairy bellies are dazzling white. Adult males of both species have a conspicuous red patch on the back of the head.

Both species have a white stripe down the middle of the back. Some authorities state that Linnaeus named the Downy for the especially soft pubescent feathers of this stripe, but Linnaeus never saw or felt the Downy. Those long, loose white feathers that make up the stripe, except for being longer on the Hairy, feel and look exactly the same on both species, making the names a puzzler.

Both species climb or hop acrobatically up around tree trunks searching for insects. They have two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes, (most birds have three front toes and one behind), and exceptionally strong claws. Their stiff pointed central tail feathers and strong legs form a tripod of stability while poking around. In inclement weather and at night, woodpeckers hole up individually in a protective roost, often one that they have excavated for this purpose.
They have even been found in nest boxes intended for bluebirds.

While Downies and Hairies can be seen on the same tree, they occupy different niches. Both species have strong, straight chisel-like bills. The Downy’s shorter, stubbier bill, only half the length of its head, is perfect for gleaning insects from crevices in bark and foraging in shrubs and dried weed stalks. The Hairy, with its sharper bill about as long as its head, probes deeper into the tree trunk for wood-boring insects and their larvae. Seventy-five percent of woodpecker diet consists of insects such as beetles, ants, caterpillars; twenty-five percent berries, seeds and nuts and some sap.

“Just how they locate their insect prey is not completely understood,” according to Dr. Frank Lane of Crater Lake Institute in Oregon. “They start out with light tapping which might cause grubs to move, which woodpeckers then hear. Hollow, insect-bored wood might sound different from solid wood, similar to carpenters tapping walls for studs. They may smell the insects. All senses may be used.”

John J. Audubon wrote that the Downy “is perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity. If you watch its motions while in the woods, the orchard, or the garden, you will find it ever at work.” These characteristics were incorporated into Native American legends symbolizing a warrior’s energy and courage.

A sure sign of spring’s imminent arrival is the late-winter drumming woodpecker. After a winter spent foraging individually with Chickadees, Nuthatches and Kinglets, woodpeckers begin drumming for mates and to establish nesting territory. Each species has a distinct drumming tempo, length and rhythm. Drumming is the communication equivalent of a songbird’s song. They bang loudly on trees, stop signs, eaves, gutters, anything that will resonate loudly. Both sexes drum, sometimes in duet. The brain is probably spared concussion during vigorous hammering by a combination of adaptations: thickened skulls; powerful neck muscles; spongy elastic material between the bill and the skull that acts as a shock absorber; and a brain tightly-oriented within the skull so that it cannot move far,

Once a pair agrees upon a nesting spot and bonds for the season, excavation begins by both male and female. Excavation takes at least a week, sometimes three in the case of the Hairy. Both species are very territorial in a small area around the nest. The Downy cavity goes straight in for several inches, then narrows slightly as it turns downward for 8-10 inches. The Downy opening is concealed with fungus or lichens. Nests are lined with wood chips, The female lays an average of 5 eggs, and both male and female incubate for about 12 days. The Downy nestling phase averages 23 days, the Hairy a week longer. After fledging, they stay near their parents for a while. Hairy young are well developed and strong fliers when they leave the nest. Young reach sexual maturity in less than a year.

The woodpecker tongue is its most astounding adaptation. Almost all birds have tongues, but not like the woodpecker. Unlike the human tongue, which is a fleshy, flexible muscle, the woodpecker tongue is skinny and rigid. It can be so long it wraps around its skull and is retracted and extended as needed. Dr. Lane writes of the Hairy, “The tongue’s base is near the nostrils and curves up and around the forehead, above the eyes, around behind, then into the mouth. A complicated system of long, slender tongue bones and muscles causes the barb-tipped, sticky tongue to extend out into the hole and impale the unfortunate grub.”

There is much more to the woodpecker than meets the eye. Hairies, Downies (and Red-bellied Woodpeckers) readily visit back yard suet feeders.