“There’s a hairy woodpecker on the suet feeder.” “No, that’s a downy!” This is the sort of banter you hear around our place. Truth be told, the hairy and downy woodpeckers are pretty much identical in appearance except for size. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish which is which because of distance (or poor vision). Roger Tory Peterson, father of the field guide, states that the downy woodpecker is like a smaller edition of the hairy: about 2.5 inches smaller. At a distance this doesn’t always help with identification. Both birds are white-backed and black-winged, with regular white spots. Two white stripes adorn a black head and the male of each species sports a small red patch at the back of its head. The main differences are body size and the bill. The downy’s bill is small; the hairy’s is proportionately larger and quite prominent. These woodpeckers are regular visitors to feeding stations and are fun to observe. Comfort foods for us may include chili, soups and stews; for a woodpecker it is definitely suet. It provides necessary heat energy to survive the winter’s cold. Congealed pan drippings mixed with peanut butter or trimmings from meat stuffed into net bags provide tasty, energy-filled treats as well.
The ability of the woodpecker to effectively drill holes into a tree seems to defy physics. I can only imagine what it might be like to repeatedly and relentlessly thrust my face into a solid object. Some quick research revealed that woodpeckers have a suspension system in their skull that reduces and absorbs the force of strokes. It has special softening tissues between the bones of its skull. During my childhood, at the cottage in Muskoka, we often awoke to the rapid percussion of a hairy woodpecker as he drilled away on the metal chimney-pipe on the roof. We never knew why he did it; perhaps he liked to hear himself. The sound would reverberate throughout our little wooden structure and our night’s slumber would come to an end. People sometimes mistakenly call the hairy or downy woodpecker a ‘red-headed woodpecker’. The red-headed is aptly named, as its entire head is bright red. They are not common at feeders, preferring hedgerows, groves and fields. I have only seen a couple over the years on our Ailsa Craig property. Flickers and sapsuckers are common in the area as well, and are actually members of the woodpecker family. I shall reserve the details on them for a future column. While in our campsite in Algonquin Park this past summer, we were visited by a large hairy woodpecker. The object of his attraction was a fallen pine log, loaded with juicy grubs and beetles. As he did not seem to care much about our presence, Tom (my better half) was able to get a few good photos of him.