Roy Lukes: Hairy Woodpecker

The Hairy Woodpecker, that bird without so much as one hair on its body, is one of my favorite birds on our property. I say this from an ecological viewpoint and not from what these wood “chiselers” had done to our wooden house built in their woods.

It has been known for a long time that this 9¼-inch, predominantly black and white woodpecker with the hard, straight chisel-shaped beak consumes great quantities of injurious wood-boring beetle larvae, insects that do considerable damage to forest trees. Surely if trees could speak they would welcome “the hairies” with open boughs.

This male Hairy Woodpecker reveals brown, tannin-stained tail feathers. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

This male Hairy Woodpecker reveals brown, tannin-stained tail feathers. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

Exactly how these and other woodpeckers locate these beetle grubs within a dead or living tree is not clearly understood. It is thought that the birds locate these juicy morsels with a combination of hearing, smell and touch.

You may wonder how well the Hairy Woodpeckers know your woods. Rex Brasher, famous U.S. ornithologist, followed a Hairy Woodpecker in 1926 for four continuous hours. During that time the woodpecker landed on 218 different trees, an average of nearly one tree a minute. The longest visit at one tree was for seven minutes. Imagine one of these forest-loving creatures repeating that feat day after day after month. Eventually this alert bird is going to thoroughly know its environment!

Among the foods we place out for the birds, are the small black oil sunflower seeds, Nyger thistle seed, Marvel Meal and suet blocks, the Hairy by all means prefers the Marvel Meal. In fact they will even tolerate the White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-capped Chickadee at the suet while they eat, but not the smaller (6¼-inch) Downy Woodpecker.

The most Hairy Woodpeckers that we are aware of frequenting our feeders now is five: three are females, two are males. There is a highly refined pecking order among these five birds, and obviously one female or one male, or both, dominate over all the others.

Studies indicate that the ranges of Hairy Woodpeckers may include 10 or more acres and will, in regard to several individual birds, quite peacefully overlap somewhat. Their much smaller summer nesting territories, as well as our small feeding area, are vigorously defended. Their nesting territory may be a parcel of woods no more than 100 feet in diameter.

From what I can tell by studying the distribution maps in field guides, the Hairy Woodpecker is native to all of the 49 continental states of the U.S. Its range extends far to the north in Canada and Alaska where the experts claim a northern race is slightly larger and has more white plumage than our Wisconsin birds. Interestingly, recent research indicates that white feathers and fur, lacking pigment, provide better insulation than dark feathers and fur. Take for example the white Arctic Fox and Snowy Owl of the far north.

Hairy Woodpeckers have been seen at Fort Reliance, on the Mackenzie River, at 66 degrees N. Latitude and at Fort Simpson, 62 degrees N. Latitude. Usually they are rare north of 56 degrees N. Latitude.

More study is needed to determine how migratory these birds are. Indications are that the northern Hairies do migrate more than people realize. We describe these woodpeckers in northeastern Wisconsin permanent residents simply because we see them every month of the year. However, we may be seeing some northern birds now, too.

Hairy Woodpeckers, for a few years after we came to live in “their” woods, made quite a few holes through the soft western cedar siding of our house. Holes through the wooden chimney covering were as large as the size of baseballs. Eventually we had to completely replace the chimney siding with a harder, less “peckable” plywood.

Unfortunately I have no foolproof advice when it comes to preventing Hairy Woodpeckers from boring into your forest-surrounded homes. We continued to chase them off our house at first sound of their banging. Finally we solved the serious problem by re-siding our entire house with metal siding. Keeping our suet feeders constantly filled helped to focus their attention away from the house.

Come summer, we treasure the sight of mama and papa Hairy Woodpeckers bringing their babies to be fed at the suet feeders, to teach them the “tricks.” In this sense we take special precautions to preserve dead standing trees (snags) in our woods that frequently are used as nesting sites by the Hairies.

We look at ourselves to a large degree as members of the wildlife community where we live. After all, we are only the present stewards of our woods that may have been home for Hairy Woodpeckers for many centuries. It is we who control the general health and the very existence of the forest and that means disturbing it as little as possible other than selectively removing the wood we burn in our stoves.

Do the Hairy Woodpeckers and other birds that dwell on your property a favor. Declare peace with them. Become partners in nature!

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