Hairy Woodpecker – Photo Credit: Mary Nelesen

by Mary Nelesen

As you may know, 2018 has been declared the “Year of the Bird”, by National Geographic, along with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Its purpose is to celebrate the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918 to protect birds from wanton killing. It would be difficult to image a world without the beauty of birds. To quote Jonathan Franzen from the January 2018 issue of National Geographic in his cover story Why Birds Matter, “It’s not just what they do for the environment – it’s what they do for our souls.”

Last summer as I sat watching hummingbirds at my feeder, a female Hairy Woodpecker arrived and landed on the feeder causing all the hummingbirds to scatter.

This was my first experience with a woodpecker feeding on sugar water. Typically I see them at the suet feeder or foraging on trees looking for insects, particularly wood-boring beetle larvae. They consume some fruits, seeds and plant material as well as tree sap. So I decided to do some research on woodpeckers and specifically on the fascinating behavior of the Hairy woodpecker, a member of the genus Picoides family.

The genus Picoides is the largest group of woodpeckers in North America, with nine species which includes the Downy and Hairy, American three-toed, Black-backed, Ladder-backed, Arizona, Nuttall’s, Red-cockaded and White-headed woodpeckers.  This group has been referred to as pied woodpeckers because of their mixed black and white plumage. The males are slightly heavier than females and have longer bills and shorter tails.

Specifically, the Hairy has a white stripe down the center of its black back and plain white under-parts. The black wings are marked with white spots and the tail is black with white outer tail feathers. The males have a narrow band of red across the nape. Females have no red markings. The Hairy is nearly identical to the Downy, differing mainly in size and bill length. The Hairy measures approx. 9.25” to the Downy’s 6.75”.

Hairy Woodpeckers have one of the most extensive ranges of any North American woodpecker. Its call note is a loud, sharp “peek”. When agitated, it makes a whinnying call to sound alarm, which is a series of notes “peek rr krr” on one pitch. Courtship includes both birds drumming in duet and tapping at nest site by females. In the west, aspens or dead conifers are often chosen and excavated by both sexes. The pair bonds are maintained year-round in some cases and may last lifelong. Clutch size ranges from 3 to 6 or 7 white eggs. Both parents incubate and feed chicks for approximately four weeks. They have one brood per year. There has been a noted decline in Hairys in many areas, thought to be due to forest fragmentation, loss of old-growth trees, and competition with European starlings for nest sites. Although they are mostly a permanent resident, some birds from the northern edges of their range may move south in winter and from high mountain ranges to lower regions.

As an aside, I have been told the best way to lure sugar-water loving woodpeckers away from the feeder is to place halved oranges, suet dough, or a small dish of jelly nearby.  If all else fails, sit back and enjoy the show. Happy bird watching!