Monday, February 16, 2015

Hairy or Downy?

Downy Woodpecker, note dark spots on white outer tail feathers - Joe Motto
After many years watching red bellied and downy woodpeckers compete at our suet feeder I finally spotted a new bird.  For me, this is a big hairy deal, a hairy woodpecker!  I wasn't able to get a good picture in the overcast winter day, but it  returned a few days later to pose for me, along with a female companion.

Downy on a goldenrod gall - Warren Uxley
Downy woodpeckers are a daily occurrence at Bull Mills and are five times as abundant as hairy woodpeckers in the Ozarks.  Small and perky, in winter they specialize in the suet feeder unlike the red-bellied woodpeckers that fly between the suet, sunflower feeder and the neighboring trees, pounding the seeds against the limbs or feeding their young in season.  They are compact with a blocky head and stout shoulders.  They tend to flit around on the trunk, more active than other woodpeckers.  They are light and agile enough to hang on a  goldenrod stem while feeding on the tasty grub inside its tough gall.

Hairy Woodpecker - Joe Motto
Hairy woodpeckers look a lot like a downy at first glance, however they are noticeably larger,  9.5 inches long compared with the 6.5 inch downy.  Its bill is considerably longer, equal to the width of their head, while downy's have a shorter pointed beak than other woodpeckers, resembling a thorn on a vine.  Their outer tail feathers are pure white rather than spotted like their downy cousins.  Finally, the rad patch on the nape of the neck of males is divided by a black line while it is solid on the downy.

Male hairy woodpecker- divided red patch
Hairy woodpecker female

Altered bluebird box with snake guard
Barb found woodpecker damage on two of our bluebird boxes. Since this is a little early for bluebird nesting we didn't mind, but objected to their alterations.  Our boxes have wire snake guards around the opening that didn't apparently suit these woodpeckers.  They pecked a hole in the side of each and use it as their front door.  It is amazing to me that they could make a hole through 3/4" wood with those tiny beaks, but then they carve out full cavities in dead trees for nests so this was just a minor renovation.  When she opened the box to inspect, she flushed a downy.

Female downy at the front door giving me the stink eye
Downy woodpeckers sometimes use their winter roosting cavities for later nesting so we will be watching these two boxes carefully.  As bluebirds build their nests and have hatch their young several weeks earlier than the woodpeckers*, the downy may find a "no vacancy" sign on the box come spring.

Missouri Breeding Bird Atlas, Brad Jacobs and James D. Wilson.

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