What is a Hairy Woodpecker?

J. Nelson
J. Nelson

A hairy woodpecker is a tree-climbing bird that locates its food in the bark, and nests in dead wood. Its scientific name is Picoides villosus, and, like all woodpeckers, it is a member of the Picidae family. These birds use their strong toes and stiff, short tail feathers to brace themselves against trees in order to climb, search for food, and dig out nesting sites.

This bird does not look as weird as it may sound, however. Despite its name, the hairy woodpecker looks like most other birds, with feathers rather than hair. In fact, this type looks very much like one of its relatives, the downy woodpecker. The hairy woodpecker has a black and white striped face, white stomach, and black wings with white spots. Males have a highly recognizable red spot on the back of their heads, almost directly behind the eyes. Hairy woodpeckers are larger than the downy variety, as the adult is usually nine in (22.86 cm) long, and have longer beaks.

The hairy woodpecker is common, all year long, in virtually all regions of North America, including the northern reaches of most Canadian provinces and parts of Alaska. They are also common in areas of central Mexico. It is not found at all in most areas of Texas and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Hairy woodpeckers typically live in wooded areas, but have also adapted to suburban settings, where they visit backyard bird feeders, mostly in winter.

This bird is insectivorous, meaning its primary food source is insects. Nuts and berries are their secondary sources of food, and — in winter — they often eat seeds. The hairy woodpecker is considered to be an excavating bird, digging deeply into trees in search of food and creating cavities for nesting sites. Excavating should not be confused with drumming, a behavior closely associated with woodpeckers.

Drumming is not used to locate food or create nests. Rather, it serves as a means of communication, in order to attract a mate or mark out territory. Since drumming is used to communicate over long distances, the woodpecker deliberately chooses wood with good acoustic properties, and then rapidly hammers its beak into the wood to create a message.

Hairy woodpeckers are believed to be increasing in numbers, but their population is dependent upon ample wooded habitat. Although they are thought to be solitary birds, it is also believed that they are are monogamous, as they reconnect and mate with the same mate year after year. Both males and females build cavity nests in wood, and do not use the same cavity twice. The female lays a clutch of white eggs, and both parents raise the young. The pair sometimes divide the brood between them, with each parent caring for and raising specific chicks.

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