Starting our Series on the many Woodpeckers that call the Piney Woods of South East Texas their home, we start with the Hairy Woodpecker.
The larger of two look alikes, the Hairy Woodpecker is a small but powerful bird that forages along trunks and main branches of large trees. It wields a much longer bill than the Downy Woodpecker’s almost thornlike bill. Hairy Woodpeckers have a somewhat soldierly look, with their erect, straight-backed posture on tree trunks and their cleanly striped heads. Look for them at backyard suet or sunflower feeders, and listen for them whinnying from woodlots, parks, and forests.
Size & Shape
A medium-sized woodpecker with a fairly square head, a long, straight, chisel-like bill, and stiff, long tail feathers to lean against on tree trunks. The bill is nearly the same length as the head.
Hairy Woodpeckers are contrastingly black and white. The black wings are checkered with white; the head has two white stripes (and, in males, a flash of red toward the back of the head). A large white patch runs down the center of the black back.
Hairy Woodpeckers hitch up tree trunks and along main branches. They sometimes feed at the bases of trees, along fallen logs, and even on the ground at times. They have the slowly undulating flight pattern of most woodpeckers.
Hairy Woodpeckers are birds of mature forests across the continent. They’re also found in woodlots, suburbs, parks, and cemeteries, as well as forest edges, open woodlands of oak and pine, recently burned forests, and stands infested by bark beetles.
- Across North America the Hairy Woodpecker can be found from sea level to high in the mountains. In Central America, it is restricted to higher mountain forests.
- Hairy and Downy woodpeckers occur together throughout most of their ranges. The Downy Woodpecker uses smaller branches while the Hairy Woodpecker tends to spend more time on trunks.
- Hairy Woodpeckers sometimes follow Pileated Woodpeckers, and sometimes appears when it hears the heavy sounds of a pileated excavating. As the pileated moves on, the Hairy Woodpecker investigates the deep holes, taking insects the pileated missed.
- Hairy Woodpeckers sometimes drink sap leaking from wells in the bark made by sapsuckers. They’ve also been seen pecking into sugar cane to drink the sugary juice.
- The oldest known Hairy Woodpecker lived to be 15 years 11 months old.
Hairy Woodpeckers are common in mature woodlands with medium to large trees. They also occur in woodlots, suburbs, parks, and cemeteries. You can find them equally commonly in coniferous forests, deciduous forests, or mixtures, and generally up to about 6,500 feet elevation. Also found at forest edges, around beaver ponds, in recently burned forests, southern swamps, open pine, oak, or birch woodlands, and orchards.
More than 75% of the Hairy Woodpecker’s diet is made up of insects, particularly the larvae of wood-boring beetles and bark beetles, ants, and moth pupae in their cocoons. To a lesser extent they also eat bees, wasps, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, and rarely cockroaches, crickets, and grasshoppers. Bark beetles sometimes cause extensive infestations in thousands of live trees, their populations reaching into the billions. When this happens, Hairy Woodpeckers often appear in large numbers to eat the larvae. A similar pattern happens in forests that have recently burned: wood-boring beetles become very numerous. Hairy and other woodpecker species can become very common in these areas and achieve high nesting success. Hairy Woodpeckers have helped control pest outbreaks such as codling moths in orchards. Elsewhere, a little more than 20% of Hairy Woodpecker diet is made up of fruit and seeds. Hairy Woodpeckers are common visitors at feeders, eating suet and sunflower seeds.
- Clutch Size
- 3–6 eggs
- Egg Length
- 0.8–1 in
- Egg Width
- 0.7–0.7 in
- Incubation Period
- 11–12 days
- Nestling Period
- 28–30 days
- Egg Description
- All white.
- Condition at Hatching
- Naked, pink skin, a sharp egg tooth at the tip of bill; eyes closed, clumsy.
The entrance to the nest is about 2 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide, leading to a cavity 8-12 inches deep. The inside widens at the bottom to make room for the eggs and the incubating bird. It’s typically bare except for a bed of wood chips at the bottom for the eggs and chicks to rest on.
Hairy Woodpeckers typically excavate their nests in the dead stub of a living tree, especially trees with heartrot, or in a dead tree. The cavity is often in a branch or stub that isn’t perfectly vertical, with the entrance hole on the underside. This location may help keep flying squirrels and sapsuckers from trying to take over the hole. Hairy Woodpeckers begin excavating their nests less than 2 weeks before egg-laying begins.
Hairy Woodpeckers typically hitch up tree trunks or along large branches, leaning back against their stiff tail feathers and springing upward with both feet at once. Unlike Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers never feed on weed stalks, cattails, or reeds. They sometimes forage at the bases of trees, particularly on ponderosa pines, which are often attacked just above ground level by a species of bark beetle. During conflicts, Hairy Woodpeckers raise both wings over their back at a 45-degree angle, crane back their head and make shrill cries; they sometimes even do this in flight. Courting birds stretch out their necks, point their bills high, and bob their heads from side to side, flicking their wings as they circle a tree trunk. They also sometimes chase each other in fast, looping flights through the trees.
Common and widespread, though populations may be on the decline from pressures such as the fragmentation of large forest tracts into smaller parcels and to competition for nest holes from the European Starling.