Hairy woodpeckers have interspersed black and white feathers, with black and white striping on the head, white checkering on the otherwise black wings, a white belly and white patch on the back. Males have a red feather patch at the back of the head. The coloration is similar to the Downy woodpecker, but the larger size of 7-10 inches in length, and the much heavier bill are distinguishing features.

The Hairy’s sharp chirping and repetitive raspy call are also very different from the more delicate chirps and rapid descending trill of the Downy. Drumming is also distinctively different between the two species, with the Hairy’s drumming rate being about 25 beats per second, compared to the Downy’s at about 15 bps. The Hairy’s drumming sounds rather like a vibration and the Downy’s more like a distinctive series of staccato strikes.

The Hairy woodpecker is common throughout the forested areas of the U.S. and Canada, including most of New Mexico. They are absent from central and western Texas and the arid southwestern desert. Hairy woodpeckers prefer forests with larger pines and hardwoods, and the Audubon society reports range reductions in New Mexico due to forest habitat losses and possibly the influence of global warming, whereas in the central Rocky Mountains and north into Canada and Alaska the range is either stable or expanding.

Hairy woodpeckers feed primarily on insects found on and under tree bark, including wood-boring beetles, ants, and caterpillars. They are able to remove bark scales with the robust beak, gaining access to beetles below the surface. They also take some berries and seeds, sometimes visiting bird feeders.

Photo by James Taulman.

Males and females establish separate territories at the start of winter but then pair later in the winter, often with the previous year’s mate, and concentrate activity within the female’s territory from then on. The male and female contribute to the excavation of the nesting cavity up to 60 feet up in a pine or hardwood tree. Both parents incubate and feed the 3-6 nestlings in a cavity nest and only one brood is produced each year. This woodpecker is suffering a widespread population decline in the Midwest and eastern U.S. due to removal of standing dead trees through forest management and the appropriation of tree cavities excavated by woodpeckers by starlings and house sparrows.

Hairy woodpeckers are year-round residents where they occur and any seasonal migratory movement is normally to a lower elevation in winter in the same region. The Audubon Society predicts that global warming will result in range losses in the southeastern U.S. and across substantial parts of the Midwest, including Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. The IUNC lists the Hairy woodpecker as a species of Least conservation concern at this time.