Your backyard suet feeder attracts several species of birds each winter, including Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers. These familiar neighbors enjoy your offerings and in return they put on a daily show for you as they flit down to the suet to break off small pieces of the fat that will help them to survive another frigid day. As you glance out the window, you notice a Downy Woodpecker fly to a nearby tree trunk and survey the area. There is no mistaking the black and white pattern on the head and wings, the white belly and large white patch on the back. But wait a minute. This Downy is as big as a Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a full two and a half inches longer than the little Downy you are used to seeing. A Downy on steroids?

The Downy Woodpeckers has a larger, look-alike cousin, the Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus). Like the Downy, it can be found throughout most of North America, though it is not as abundant. It breeds here in Connecticut, preferring mature forests and wooded swamps, and less frequently, orchards and wooded urban parks. In winter, depending on your surrounding habitat, the hairy can become a regular visitor to your suet feeder, though it tends to be a bit more cautious than the other birds.

Insects comprise 75 to 95 per cent of the Hairy Woodpecker’s diet, with wood-boring beetle larvae topping the list of favorites. The woodpecker will bore into a tree until it reaches a grub’s tunnel. The bird’s tongue, perfectly adapted for the job of insect extraction, is so long that it wraps around the bird’s skull and right eye when retracted. It extends this amazing tongue several inches to reach the grub. Barbs on the tip grab the prey while a sticky saliva holds onto it.

Hairy Woodpecker - Danny Hancock/Audubon Photography Awards- and Downy Woodpecker - Julia Archibald/Audubon Photography Awards

Sometimes, identification by size alone is difficult to determine if the woodpecker is not seen close to other birds. Do a quick visual measurement of the woodpecker’s bill. If it is stubby – shorter than the length of the bird’s head – it is a Downy. If it is long and pointed – the same length as the head – it is a Hairy. Also listen for its call. The Downy has a short “pik” call, while the Hairy’s emphatic, high-pitched “peek” call will grab your attention as it makes a special appearance in your yard.

Cindi Kobak

[Audubon’s Climate Report lists the Hairy Woodpecker as a Climate Threatened.]