12 Facts About Hairy Woodpeckers (with Photos)

Woodpeckers are often a favorite species in the United States and Canada. Those of us lucky enough to live near forests or woodlands can hear their persistent drumming throughout the spring and summer months, or calling from high up in the trees. In this article we will learn 12 facts about hairy woodpeckers, a common black and white backyard species.

12 Facts About Hairy Woodpeckers 

1. They have feathers, not hair. 

Hairy woodpeckers aren’t named very descriptively – they have feathers, not hair! The moniker is often attributed to a difference with their smaller cousin, the downy woodpecker.

Both the downy and the hairy woodpecker have a patch of white feathers along the middle of their back. The feathers are shorter and more “downy” in appearance on the downy woodpecker. Meanwhile on the hairy woodpecker, the feathers are longer and less fluffy, with a more hair-like appearance.  

2. They will live anywhere with trees. 

A hairy woodpecker relies on forest, or at least a few trees, for everything. This bird uses trees for food, nesting material, and shelter. Populations thrive throughout North America, but you won’t see them in the true deserts, Arctic, or in the mountains above the tree line. 

In the plains and semi-arid deserts of the Southwest, they congregate in stands of trees near streams and rivers. This provides them with enough insects and water to live and raise chicks. 

3. They nest in cavities in dead trees. 

Most woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and the Hairy woodpecker is no different. Mated pairs prepare a nest just two weeks after getting together. 

They make their nest in a cavity within an alive but rotting tree or dead tree. Instead of an elaborately constructed nest at the bottom of the hollow, the female only adds a layer of wood chips. The baby woodpeckers grow quickly and acclimate fast. 

Hairy woodpecker looking for insects, Image credit: birdfeederhub

4. Hairy woodpeckers live throughout most of the United States and Canada. 

Hairy woodpeckers have adapted to life throughout most of North America. Some populations even live in central Mexico and Central America! 

They don’t migrate, so you have an equal chance of spotting them in your backyard year-round. 

5. Males and females look very similar. 

hairy male versus female

The male and female of most woodpecker species look the same with only slight differences. Males may have a little bit more color, but overall, they are similar and may even be hard to tell apart. 

All hairy woodpeckers have a white chest and belly, white central back stripe, and black wings with white spots in several lines. Their faces are a mixture of black and white stripes which radiate outward from the bill. There is a tawny brown tuft of feathers at the base of the bill, and the bill is about the same length as the length of their head.

Hairy woodpecker males have just one difference compared to females. They have a bright red patch of feathers at the back of their heads. Females lack this extra ornamentation. 

6. Their look varies according to what part of their range you are in. 

There are two varieties of Hairy woodpeckers: Rocky Mountain or Western and Eastern. 

Eastern Hairy woodpeckers have wider face stripes and more white spots on their wings. West of the Rockies’, hairy’s have nearly solid black wings that display much fewer white spots.

The dividing line between these two types of Hairy woodpeckers lies in the Rocky Mountains range. Birds eastward of the mountains are more spotted, while birds to the west are not. 

hairy western eastern

7. Hairy woodpeckers have a smaller doppelganger. 

The Downy woodpecker is the smaller cousin of the Hairy Woodpecker. These two insect-eating birds look nearly identical, but there are a few simple differences that will help you tell them apart no matter what kind of bird you’re looking at. 

First, Hairy Woodpeckers are much larger. They are about the size of a robin, while downy woodpeckers are a little larger than a sparrow. 

Downy woodpeckers have shorter bills proportional to their head size than do Hairy woodpeckers. The smaller bird’s beak is more adapted to eating smaller insects.

We have a whole article here dedicated to the differences between these two species, so if you want to brush up on telling them apart, check it out! 

8. They come to bird feeders readily. 

hairy on suet
Hairy woodpecker on suet feeder | image credit: birdfeederhub.com

Winter is a difficult time for many insect-eating birds because most plants, which the insects rely on, go dormant until the spring. As a result, these birds have to work extra hard to find food and stay warm in the cold. 

Therefore winter is a great time to set out food for hairy woodpeckers. Suet will be your best bet for attracting them, but they may also enjoy seed mixes that have peanut pieces and sunflower in them.

9. Hairy woodpeckers like tree trunks and thick branches the most. 

Hairy woodpeckers have a specialized ecological niche: the inner branches of mature trees in well-kept forest. This may sound like a tall order, but there are millions of environments where these parameters are met. 

Why do hairy woodpeckers like older forest so much? They have more opportunity to find snags to nest in and insects to eat. They also benefit from the larger surface area of older trees. Older bark means that insects have had more time to burrow underneath, improving their chances of finding a meal. 

10. They eat insects and, occasionally, sap. 

Over 75% of the Hairy woodpecker’s daily diet comes from insects. They prefer to eat meatier larvae like caterpillars and grubs. They’ll also eat ants. They need a lot of protein to keep up with their energy expenditures. 

Sap, fruit, and seed make up a small portion of their diet, but it can be the difference between life or death in inhospitable conditions. This is why feeding suet in the winter can be so helpful in supporting Hairy woodpecker populations.  

hairy woodpecker on a suet cage
Hairy Woodpecker | image by USFWS Midwest via Flickr

11. Their nests have entrances on the bottom. 

When looking for a suitable nest site, Hairy woodpeckers like to construct their entrance hole on the underside of a tree branch or stub. Why?

Having an entrance on the underside hides the doorway from any potential invaders. It makes it more difficult for other birds to fly in and take the nest over, or for predators to enter. 

12. They take advantage of food found by other woodpeckers.

Hairy’s are smart and will take advantage of leftovers whenever possible.

They have been known to be attracted to the sound of the larger pileated woodpecker as it hammers away, excavating a huge hole looking for insects. Once the pileated is gone, the hairy will swoop in and thoroughly explore all the crevices looking for insects that were left behind. 

They will also drink from sapwells created by sapsuckers. 

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About Anna Lad

Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.