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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is that ... a Downy or a Hairy Woodpecker?

What is that … a Downy or a Hairy Woodpecker?


Some early mornings,  as we lie in bed enjoying the sunrise through the bedroom window, we are rattled by a rat-a-tat-tat at the door.  The tapping is really in the trees that are close to the bedroom.  We know it is not a person … it is a woodpecker, but is it a downy or a hairy?  One of us grabs a camera to try to catch the shot.  We know it is not the pileated woodpecker because it would not knock politely at the door; it would wallop the door … thud, thud, thud.

Of the five types of woodpeckers we see at White Lake, the pileated woodpecker is our favourite.  Growing to almost 42 centimetres, it is large and industrious, hollowing the trunks of dead or dieing trees for nests.  Pileated woodpeckers drill distinctive rectangular holes in rotten wood to get at insects. Pileateds are relatively solitary birds.  In the spring, we have seen a courting pair once or twice, and late last summer we managed to photograph juvenile siblings who were well advanced in the growth of their adult plumage.  The two sexes have similar black and white colouring with a red cap, but the male has an additional red stripe on his cheeks.


One of the easiest woodpeckers to identify is the northern flicker which is also large and brownish overall but richly patterned with black spots, bars and crescents.  Adults can grow to almost 32 centimetres.  It spends a lot of its time on the ground foraging for beetles and other insects.


Another member of the woodpecker family is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, one which we identified at the cottage only recently.  Adults may grow to 21 centimetres.  To our feeble eyes it looks much like a hairy woodpecker, but its behaviour sets it apart.  The yellow-bellied sapsucker taps out a series of small holes in rows, each hole just deep enough to allow sap to flow.  It laps up the sap and any insects captured in the stickiness.  Look for this woodpecker on tree trunks beside the holes it has made.


Numbers four and five are the downy and hairy woodpeckers.  At first glance their plumage is so similar many people, including us, have great difficulty keeping them straight.  We rely primarily on two identifiers.  The downy is a much smaller bird than the hairy, only 15 centimetres long from head to tail tip.  The downy’s bill is short and stubby.  Ironically, the field mark that we cannot see in the field but which shows sometimes in a photograph is the tuft of bristles at the base of the downy’s bill.  The hairy woodpecker’s bill is much longer and chisel-like.  Its body averages 23 centimetres long but the hairy can grow up to 33 centimetres.  Both downy and hairy woodpeckers eat insects, but the downy is also inclined towards berries and acorns which accounts for its stubbier bill.


Our two main online sources for information about birds are
ii) . We also depend a lot on Roger Tory Peterson’s and David Sibley’s field guides. Gerald McKeating’s Birds of Ottawa is very useful too.






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