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Downy & Hairy Woodpecker

HAIRY OR DOWNY?

By Jeannie Marcure

This month’s feature birds are two of my favorites—partly I suspect, because like many of us, they are yearlong residents in the Flathead. Their frequent appearance at my suet feeders has brightened many cold, snowy days and in March their persistent drumming as they search for mates is often the first welcome harbinger of spring.

Both species have white backs and white underparts with white spotted black wings and white streaked faces. The Hairy is larger at 9 inches, while the Downy is closer to 6 inches. Males of both species have a cherry red nape while females have no red. My secret for telling the two apart when they’re not cooperative enough to appear together, is to look at the bill. The Downy bill is much shorter—approximately half the length of its head while the Hairy has a bill almost the same length as its head.

Like all woodpeckers, the Hairy and the Downy have bodies well adapted to their eating and nesting habits.

For protection during nest excavation and drumming, the brain case is enlarged and the frontal bones are folded at the base of the bill to act as shock absorbers while the chisel-shaped beak resists binding in the wood. Specialized muscles behind the beak further cushion the blows. Nostrils are feathered and somewhat narrowed for protection from the sawdust during excavation. Eyes are also closed just before the beak hits the wood. Tail feathers are stiff and supported by muscles that allow fine manipulation and the two center feathers are pointed and reinforced with barbs that curve inward for support against trees. During molt, the central feathers are not lost until the other feathers have grown to full strength. For efficient climbing, these woodpeckers have four toes—two facing forward and two back. They can also extend one of the rear toes laterally for extra support as they move up and down a tree. Tongues are barbed and sticky and contain a set of bones that allow movement and food manipulation.

To attract these delightful and interesting birds to your property, remember that they excavate their nests in dead wood, so leave a few snags for them to use as home sites. In my experience, this also prevents them from trying to drill into your house—something that is both annoying and expensive! Hairy and Downy woodpeckers are primarily insect eaters, cleaning the bugs from bark and wood crevices by probing with their specialized tongues and even by listening for the little critters! In winter they add seeds and nuts to their diets and will be enthusiastic and regular visitors to your suet feeders once they find them. I have to admit though that they seem to prefer the peanut butter variety and actually shunned my feeders for a while one winter when I changed to a less desirable variety. At my house, I also have often seen Downy Woodpeckers clinging to stalks of mullein, eating the seeds. This gave me a whole new perspective on the appearance of this somewhat questionable plant and I now include a patch of them with my more traditional flowers.

Kudos if you identified the top bird as a Downy and the lower as a Hairy! Keep those feeders full and you’ll have lots of entertainment this winter!

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