Sitting on the patio one late summer morning, I heard a sharp, familiar “PEEK” from the west. Really? Could that be a Hairy Woodpecker here in the summer? We typically have them in the winter, but summer? Never before. Cocking my head, I strained to try to catch another sound from the mystery bird. Suddenly, a male and a female Hairy zipped by, followed by an awkwardly flying, loudly squawking youngster. Holy cow—they must have nested somewhere not too far from here, since that kid wasn’t all that great a flyer. I guess they hadn’t read the book that said Hairies like to breed higher in the mountains…
The Hairy Woodpecker is a medium-sized, sturdy, boldly patterned woodpecker, with a black and white head, a large white patch on its back, clear white sides and belly, white spots low on its wings—all set off by stunning black wings, lower back, and tail. Its bill is thick and long—about as long as the head is from front to back. (We’ll come back to that important characteristic later.) You can identify a first-year male surprisingly easily: An adult male has a red patch at the back of his head but a male that hatched in the current year instead has a red patch on the front of his head. (Females of any age have no red on their heads.) All woodpeckers share a number of interesting features setting them apart from other birds. For instance, a woodpecker uses its stiff tail for support as it moves vertically up and down tree trunks; that tail can also act as a brace as it excavates a nest cavity or searches for insects under the bark. A woodpecker’s bill resembles a chisel, for easier excavation in wood. (A pointed bill, such as those of many songbirds, could just get stuck in the wood.) Along with hummingbirds, woodpeckers are the only birds that can stretch their tongues well beyond their bills. In addition, the tip of the tongue is usually barbed and sticky—all the better to slurp up tasty grubs and larvae from deep in wood crevices.
Although Hairies live throughout Colorado, from timberline to the plains, they commonly summer in the mountains and winter at lower elevations (such as our area). These black-and-white tree-huggers prefer mature forests but also occupy a variety of habitats including riparian corridors, parks, cemeteries, and suburban habitats. Eastern and western Hairies have some distinct differences that can be easy to see: For example, the eastern subspecies tend to have much more white spotting on both their upper and lower wings while the western subspecies have solid black upper wings and more finely spotted lower wings.
A Hairy’s diet consists mostly of insects; favorites include larvae of wood-boring beetles, ants, spiders, millipedes, and caterpillars. Hairies also eat berries, seeds, and nuts and will come to bird feeders for suet and sunflower seeds. Many of the best larvae (at least if you’re a Hairy Woodpecker) can be found in dead trees—a good reason to leave some of these “woodpecker cafeterias” up, if you can, for a year or 2 after a tree dies.
Hairy Woodpeckers can be found in Colorado year-round, although, as noted above, many move higher in the summer and drop to lower altitudes in the winter. On our property, we see Hairies mostly in the fall and winter. Although cavity nesters, Hairies don’t typically use nest boxes; creating a new nesting cavity each breeding season seems to be an important part of the mating ritual. (However, a few may roost in them overnight in the winter.) In Colorado, breeding begins in mid- to late May. Both sexes excavate the nest hole, but the male does most of the work across 2 to 3 weeks. Hairies favor aspen or trees with decayed heartwood. The brood of 3-5 eggs hatches in 12 days, incubated in the day by the female and at night by the male. Nestlings fledge after 28 to 30 days. The youngsters remain dependent on their parents for several weeks, often remaining on same trunk or branch for hours, waiting for an adult to bring food.
The Hairy Woodpecker’s name—Picoides villosus—comes from the Latin word picus, a name for the great black woodpecker of tropical Asia (known today as the White-bellied Woodpecker); oides means “to resemble.” So the species’ namer thought that these birds resembled the White-bellied Woodpecker. The species name—villosus—means “shaggy” in reference to the short bristle-like feathers covering the nostrils—a similar explanation for its common name of Hairy.
The Hairy Woodpecker has a diminutive doppelgänger—the Downy Woodpecker. Their beaks offer one way to distinguish these look-alike species. A sturdy beak as long as the head is from front to back—Hairy; a delicate-looking beak perhaps only ½ the length of the head from front to back—Downy. Once you see a few of each, though, the overall size becomes really obvious too. As Pete Dunne wrote, the Downy is a “tiny compact woodpecker that would have to stretch to see over a coffee mug. A Hairy is a full-sized, big-billed street brawler of a woodpecker that would have no trouble peering over a beer mug.”
As with other woodpeckers, the nest cavities that Hairy Woodpeckers drill out each year benefit a host of other cavity-nesting bird species that need cavities for breeding but can’t make their own. Roughly 40% of birds breeding in the mountains require nest holes but only 8% of them are woodpeckers able to create such holes. Mountain Bluebirds, Juniper Titmice, Tree and Violet-green Swallows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches and many other species tip their proverbial hats to their woodpecker neighbors for providing safe, dry homes for their families.
You can see photos and hear some of the Hairy’s calls here.