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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The hairy woodpecker

  • This female hairy woodpecker has a long beak and white tail feathers with no black markings.<br/>Bill Danielson photo

    This female hairy woodpecker has a long beak and white tail feathers with no black markings.
    Bill Danielson photo

  • This female downy woodpecker has a shorter beak and has black marks on her white tail feathers.<br/>Bill Danielson photo

    This female downy woodpecker has a shorter beak and has black marks on her white tail feathers.
    Bill Danielson photo

  • This male hairy woodpecker is easy to identify as male because of the beautiful patch of scarlet feathers on the back of his head.<br/>Bill Danielson photo

    This male hairy woodpecker is easy to identify as male because of the beautiful patch of scarlet feathers on the back of his head.
    Bill Danielson photo

  • This female hairy woodpecker has a long beak and white tail feathers with no black markings.<br/>Bill Danielson photo
  • This female downy woodpecker has a shorter beak and has black marks on her white tail feathers.<br/>Bill Danielson photo
  • This male hairy woodpecker is easy to identify as male because of the beautiful patch of scarlet feathers on the back of his head.<br/>Bill Danielson photo

I had every intention of writing a story about Florida for today’s column. I was going to select some wonderfully exotic bird for which I had wonderfully exotic photos and I would then weave an intricate story about visiting a wetland filled with birds, snakes and alligators. To tell you the truth, I even had a dream about these sorts of birds last night. In my dream, I was shoveling snow off my porch when a glossy ibis and then a great-blue heron flew over my house. Yes, tropical birds were on my brain.

When I woke up, I found myself back in a wintry world. The big Valentine’s Day storm left so much snow in my yard that a couple warm days wouldn’t erase it all. Worse than that, however, was the damage that the storm did to so many travel plans. My beautiful wife brought home a story of a friend who was forced to cancel a trip to Florida because of the snow. How awful that a long-savored trip to escape winter’s clutches could be canceled by the very thing one was trying to escape.

So, I realized that a story on tropical birds would be akin to rubbing salt in an open wound.

Thus, I had to scramble to come up with a new idea. I spent a great deal of time sitting at my writing desk and watching the birds for the past few days. I keep hoping to catch a glimpse of a siskin, or a redpoll, but I haven’t had any luck so far. No, the feeders are well attended, but only by the “regulars.” Yet even among their familiar countenances one can find excitement, for not every little face is seen every day.

I keep a daily list of the birds that show up for food and there are three or four species that always seem to be at the top of the list. Juncos, goldfinches, blue jays or tree sparrows seem to occupy the pole position most often. They are so dependable that only their absence would cause much of a stir. However, there are other species that can generate a small celebration when they arrive. These are special guests that attend meetings more irregularly.

The members of this slightly more exclusive club would include birds like the titmice or the cardinals. My house is out in the open, well away from the comfort of any trees, and some species just don’t make the trip too often. So, as I sat there watching the squabbling amongst the regulars, I remember giving a little cheer when a hairy woodpecker arrived.

She had several different choices, but, like most of the woodpeckers, she went straight to the peanut feeder. I usually keep this feeder filled with peanuts in the shell, but for Valentine’s Day, I decided to treat the birds to a jar of dry-roasted peanuts. This was a very popular gift and all of the birds that normally take an exploratory whack at the peanuts have tucked into the new variety with great gusto. I’ve even seen goldfinches take a nibble or two.

It’s only after years of practice and continual trial and error that I was able to identify “her” as a hairy woodpecker so quickly. The “her” part was the easiest to come up with because of the lack of any red on the back of her head. Identifying her as a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) instead of a downy woodpecker (P. pubescens) took a little more practice. We’re talking about two species that are almost identical in appearance, so it’s the details that get important.

Both species are dominated by black-and-white plumages that conform to virtually identical checkerboard patterns. Both species also inhabit the same basic habitats in nearly identical ranges across North America. In fact, the differences between these birds are so few in number that you really have to glom onto them once you find them.

Basically, you have two versions of nearly identical birds. The hairy is the larger of the two species. Using size as a key characteristic for identification is a bit tricky because size is relative. What may seem like a large bird one day can seem small the next, all depending on the mind of the observer. Size does work if a side-by-side comparison is possible, but those are rare indeed.

If you look at the photos I have provided, you will see the problem immediately. Which of the female woodpeckers is larger than the other? Well, the only way to tell is to count the squares in the wire tube of the peanut feeder. By some miracle, the female woodpeckers are both holding onto the wire at exactly the same place — eight squares up from the bottom. The top of the female downy woodpecker’s head only reaches 15 squares up from the bottom, whereas the female hairy’s head reaches 19 squares up. To the novice, however, these are the same birds.

So, then you look for two other important characteristics. Note that the female hairy has a much longer tail. More importantly, note that the white feathers of the tail have no black markings on them at all. The shorter tail of the female downy has white feathers that are decorated with black dots. Since “downy’ and “dot” both start with the letter “D,” this is an easy way to tell the two species apart.

But, sometimes you can’t see those dots. Then what do you look for? Well, this final field mark is probably the trickiest, requiring the most practice. If you look at the size of the beaks on all of the photographed birds you will see there is a key size difference here as well. In the region between the eye and the jaws (a region known as the “lores”), you will see that the length of the lores is just about the same as the length of the beak in the downy woodpecker. The hairy woodpecker’s beak is much longer than the length of its lores, thus distinguishing one species from another.

The sharp observer will have noticed by now that the photo of the male hairy woodpecker shows peanuts in the shell, while those of the two female woodpeckers show the dry roasted peanuts I mentioned earlier. Well, if the male woodpeckers had all showed up, I wouldn’t have had this issue. The male downy woodpecker (a real prima donna if you ask me) didn’t even return any of my phone calls, so he was left out altogether.

On Valentine’s Day, even as the snow was falling with increasing ferocity, I did hear a male cardinal singing his love song. On previous weekends, I have heard the male woodpeckers drumming on their favorite signal trees, sending out a Morse code invitation of amore to any females that might have been listening. I know it seems like this winter will never end, but it’s already ending and the birds know it.

For now, however, we have snow and snow means busy feeders. If you have a window that looks out into the world, consider putting up a peanut feeder. It’s not always easy to get outside at this time of year, but you can bring the outside a little closer to you. The peanut feeder will discourage squirrels and you just might attract a woodpecker or two. Just remember that identifying them is up to you.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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