The Hairy Woodpecker: Nesting and Feeding Habits of the Downy Look-Alike

A close-up photograph of a woodpecker with striking black and white plumage and a small red patch on the back of its head. The bird is perched on a piece of wood against a blurred green background.


The Hairy Woodpecker is a species that closely resembles the Downy Woodpecker. In this article, we will delve into the nesting behavior and feeding habits of the Hairy Woodpecker, highlighting its similarities and differences with the Downy Woodpecker.

1. Understanding the Hairy Woodpecker: A Closer Look

The Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) is a medium-sized woodpecker species that can be found in North America. It closely resembles the Downy Woodpecker, making it a challenging bird to identify for beginners. However, upon closer examination, there are several distinct physical characteristics that set the Hairy Woodpecker apart:

  • Size: The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the Downy Woodpecker, measuring about 9-10 inches in length. Its size is comparable to that of a small robin.
  • Bill Length: One of the key differences between the two species lies in their bill length. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill compared to the Downy Woodpecker, which is shorter and stubbier.
  • Feather Patterns: The Hairy Woodpecker features bold black and white markings on its back and wings. Its outer tail feathers are predominantly white with black barring.
  • Crown Pattern: Another distinguishing feature is the solid black crown of the Hairy Woodpecker, while the Downy Woodpecker has a smaller patch of black with white spots.

To aid visual identification, here are some real pictures of the Hairy Woodpecker at different angles:

By familiarizing yourself with these unique characteristics and comparing them to those of the Downy Woodpecker, you can become more confident in identifying the Hairy Woodpecker during your birdwatching adventures.

2. Exploring Nesting Patterns of the Hairy Woodpecker

The nesting behavior of the Hairy Woodpecker plays a crucial role in its survival and reproduction, showcasing fascinating strategies that distinguish it from other species:

Preferential Nesting Sites

Hairy Woodpeckers exhibit a preference for nesting sites distinct from those chosen by other bird species. They often select dead trees or branches for excavating their nest cavities. This behavior sets them apart from the Downy Woodpeckers, which tend to favor softer, decaying wood for their nest sites.

Nest Construction Process

The nest construction process of Hairy Woodpeckers involves excavating cavities in tree trunks or large branches using their strong bills. These cavities serve as protective shelters for raising their young. It is essential to note that these woodpeckers also show adaptability in utilizing human-made structures such as wooden utility poles and even buildings with wooden siding for nesting purposes, as highlighted in this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service article on woodpeckers.

Supporting real images of Hairy Woodpecker nests offer valuable insight into the intricate details of their nesting patterns, providing bird enthusiasts with a visual understanding of these remarkable avian behaviors. For more information on the breeding habits of these woodpeckers, you can refer to this comprehensive guide on the Birds of the World website, which includes detailed accounts of various woodpecker species including the Acorn Woodpecker with its unique social dynamics and nesting patterns.

3. Foraging Techniques and Diet Preferences: What Fuels the Hairy Woodpecker?

The foraging habits of the Hairy Woodpecker are closely intertwined with its physical adaptations. Let's explore them in detail.

Physical Adaptations for Foraging

The Hairy Woodpecker has several physical adaptations that enable it to effectively forage for food:

  • Long, sturdy bill: The Hairy Woodpecker's bill is long and strong, allowing it to easily excavate wood in search of insects.
  • Stiff tail feathers: The stiff tail feathers serve as a prop, providing stability and support while the woodpecker clings to tree trunks or branches.
  • Strong claws: The Hairy Woodpecker possesses strong, curved claws that enable it to grip onto tree bark securely.
  • Flicking tongue: Similar to other woodpecker species, the Hairy Woodpecker has a long, sticky tongue that can be rapidly extended to capture prey hiding deep within crevices.

Diet Preferences

The diet of the Hairy Woodpecker primarily consists of insects and other small arthropods. Some common food items include:

  1. Wood-boring insects: The Hairy Woodpecker feeds on larvae and adults of wood-boring beetles, such as carpenter ants and wood-boring caterpillars. It excavates tree bark to expose these hidden delicacies.
  2. Ants: Ants are an essential part of the Hairy Woodpecker's diet. It often probes ant colonies with its bill or uses its tongue to extract ants from their nests.
  3. Beetles: The woodpecker also consumes various species of beetles, including weevils, click beetles, and ground beetles.
  4. Spiders: Spiders are an additional source of protein for the Hairy Woodpecker. It actively searches for spiders among foliage and tree bark.

By understanding the diet preferences and foraging techniques of the Hairy Woodpecker, we gain insight into its ecological role as a predator of insects and arthropods. This knowledge helps us appreciate the vital role this species plays in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems.

4. The Hairy Woodpecker vs. the Downy Woodpecker: Understanding the Similarities and Differences

When it comes to woodpeckers, the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker are often confused due to their similar appearance. While they do share some characteristics, there are also key differences that set them apart. Let's take a closer look at these two species to better understand their similarities and distinctions.


  • Both the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are small to medium-sized birds, with the Downy being slightly smaller.
  • They both have black wings with white spots, a black tail, and a white belly. Additionally, both species have a black-and-white striped pattern on their back.
  • Both woodpeckers prefer similar habitats, including deciduous forests, woodlands, parks, and suburban areas.
  • Both species use drumming as a form of communication and territorial display, creating rhythmic patterns on tree trunks.


  • The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the Downy Woodpecker, with a longer bill. The Downy has a shorter bill in proportion to its body size.
  • The outer tail feathers of the Hairy Woodpecker are all white, while those of the Downy have black barring or spots.
  • The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer and sturdier beak compared to the smaller and more delicate beak of the Downy Woodpecker.
  • Although both species have similar calls consisting of short "pik" or "peek" notes, the Downy's call is typically higher-pitched.

By understanding these similarities and differences between the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker, birdwatchers can more easily identify and appreciate these fascinating birds in the wild. If you're interested in learning more about the Downy Woodpecker, or want to explore the diverse woodpecker species found in North Texas, you can check out these resources: DFW Urban Wildlife and Birding Insider.

Threats, Predators, and Conservation of Hairy Woodpeckers

The Hairy Woodpecker faces various threats from natural predators and human activities, which can impact its population and survival:

1. Natural Predators

The Hairy Woodpecker is vulnerable to predation by larger birds of prey such as hawks and owls. Nestlings and eggs are particularly at risk from these avian predators.

2. Threats from Human Activities

Habitat loss due to deforestation and urban development poses a significant threat to Hairy Woodpeckers. The destruction of old-growth forests and dead trees reduces suitable nesting sites for the woodpeckers. Additionally, collisions with man-made structures such as buildings and vehicles can result in fatalities.

Conservation efforts are underway to safeguard the Hairy Woodpecker population and their habitat:

1. Habitat Protection

Conservation initiatives focus on preserving mature forests with an abundance of dead or decaying trees, which are essential for nesting and foraging. This includes designating protected areas and creating wildlife corridors to connect fragmented habitats.

2. Public Awareness

Educating the public about the importance of preserving natural habitats for woodpeckers and other wildlife species is crucial. Promoting responsible forestry practices and minimizing disturbances in woodpecker habitats are key components of conservation awareness.

3. Research and Monitoring

Scientists conduct studies to better understand the ecology of Hairy Woodpeckers, including their nesting behavior, foraging habits, and responses to habitat changes. Monitoring population trends helps identify areas where conservation efforts are most needed.

By addressing these threats and actively participating in conservation endeavors, we can contribute to the long-term well-being of the Hairy Woodpecker species.

Hairy Woodpecker Dove Nesting Stats
Eggs3 - 6
Incubation11 - 12 days
Nestling Phase28- 30 days

Tips for Bird Watchers: How to Spot and Identify Hairy Woodpeckers in the Wild

When it comes to spotting and identifying Hairy Woodpeckers in the wild, there are a few key tips that can enhance your birdwatching experience:

1. Invest in the Right Equipment

Having the right equipment can make a big difference when it comes to birdwatching. Here are two essential items for observing Hairy Woodpeckers:

  • Binoculars: A good pair of binoculars will allow you to see details up close without disturbing the birds.
  • Field Guide: Get a field guide specifically for woodpeckers. This book will have detailed information and illustrations that can help you identify different species, including the Hairy Woodpecker.

2. Learn the Key Characteristics

Knowing what to look for is crucial when trying to identify a specific bird species. Here are some distinctive features of the Hairy Woodpecker:

  • It is larger than the Downy Woodpecker, another common woodpecker species.
  • It has a longer bill compared to the Downy Woodpecker.
  • Look for its black-and-white plumage pattern, which includes white outer tail feathers and white spots on its wings.

3. Know Where to Search

Understanding the habitat preferences of Hairy Woodpeckers can greatly increase your chances of finding them. Here are some places where they are commonly seen:

  • Mature deciduous or mixed forests: Look for areas with old trees, as Hairy Woodpeckers often nest in cavities excavated in dead trees or snags.
  • Wooded suburban areas: They can sometimes be found in parks or residential neighborhoods with plenty of trees.
  • Forested edges: Keep an eye out for them along the borders between wooded areas and open fields or meadows.

4. Get Involved in Citizen Science

Birdwatchers can play an important role in scientific research and conservation efforts through citizen science projects. Here's how you can contribute:

  • Participate in bird counts: Join organized bird counts like the Christmas Bird Count or the Great Backyard Bird Count to help collect data on bird populations.
  • Use eBird: eBird is an online platform where birdwatchers can record their sightings. By submitting your observations, you are contributing valuable information that scientists can use to study bird distributions and movements.

By following these tips and techniques, you can increase your chances of spotting and identifying Hairy Woodpeckers in their natural habitat, while also making meaningful contributions to avian research and conservation efforts.


The nesting behavior and feeding habits of the Hairy Woodpecker are fascinating aspects of its ecology that contribute to its long-term conservation. By understanding and appreciating these remarkable birds, we can take steps to protect them in our own communities. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The Hairy Woodpecker's nesting patterns, such as its preferential selection of nesting sites and the construction process, are crucial for its survival and reproduction. Observing and documenting their nesting behaviors can provide valuable insights into their population dynamics.
  • The foraging techniques and diet preferences of the Hairy Woodpecker are closely linked to its physical adaptations. By studying their feeding habits and the types of food they consume, we can better understand their ecological role in the ecosystem.
  • While the Hairy Woodpecker shares similarities with the Downy Woodpecker, there are also key distinctions in their behavior and appearance. Appreciating these differences allows us to accurately identify and distinguish between these two species.

Raising awareness about the nesting behavior and feeding ecology of the Hairy Woodpecker is essential for its conservation. By taking action to protect their habitat, providing suitable nesting sites, and preserving their food sources, we can ensure a sustainable future for these incredible birds.


When it comes to learning more about bird watching and the Hairy Woodpecker, there are various resources available for further exploration. Here are some recommended sources for additional information on the Hairy Woodpecker and the content used in this article:

  1. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: A comprehensive online resource with detailed articles, images, and sounds of the Hairy Woodpecker.
  2. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America: This classic guidebook provides in-depth information about a wide range of bird species, including the Hairy Woodpecker.
  3. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Another valuable resource for bird enthusiasts, offering detailed descriptions and illustrations of various bird species, including the Hairy Woodpecker.

These resources can serve as valuable references for those interested in delving deeper into the world of bird watching and gaining a better understanding of the habits and characteristics of the Hairy Woodpecker.

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