I got a message from a follower in Australia who has never seen a woodpecker! So, I am writing the last blog for this season’s winter series about 3 of our local woodpeckers. There are 7 different birds in the woodpecker family that you could see in Western Mass. There are Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers. Today, I will concentrate on the 3 that look similar and are easily mixed up sometimes. The 2 that people often struggle with are the Downy and the Hairy. They look a LOT alike, so you need to know what to look and listen for!
They both have black and white feathers that look soft and fluffy. Their backs have 2 solid black patches with a white center. This area is surrounded by white spotted plumage on the sides and top tail feathers. The longer bottom tail feathers are solid black. They have white bellies and chest areas. Their faces have beautiful, alternating black and white stripes and white eye rings. They also have a small tannish patch where the beak meets the face. For both species, the males have a red patch on the back of their heads, near their necks. The Downy Woodpecker is a much smaller, friendlier bird. It also has a shorter beak. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger with a longer, sharper-looking beak and white tail feathers under the black.
Both these woodpeckers live in our area year-round. They like wooded areas, especially one like my backyard with lots of dead trees since the tornado back in 2011. If you have bird feeders out, you likely see these birds as they visit my feeders many times a day. They will eat my nuts and suet. I had one Downy that would peck on my window whenever the nut dish was empty-so cute and friendly. In the wild, they will peck at the trees to find beetle larvae, ants, termites and other insects inside them. They also eat wild berries, acorns and seeds. Fun fact, if you see a woodpecker pecking at a certain area of your house consistently, get it checked out for termites!
They nest in dead tree cavities as well, usually ones with fungus as they are easier to bore into. Both species will use wing displays to attract a mate. Downeys are monogamous and the pair will work together to build a nest area in a couple of weeks. They create an entrance hole and then line the cavity with wood chips. The female will lay 1 brood of 4-6 plain white eggs usually. Hairy Woodpeckers do not remain together year-round, but often hitch up again in the spring to nest in the female’s territory. To find a new mate, they serenade each other with pecking patterns! The Hairy will lay 3-6 white eggs with a few black spots. Both species breed between April and June. Both adults work together to incubate the eggs and feed their young. I have raised quite a few families in my yard.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is similar looking from a distance, especially the juveniles who lack the colors of the adults. They also have black and white feather patterns, but they lack the large plain white areas. The adults have yellow tinged areas with a thin white strip on the sides. The female has a red patch on top of her head and the male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are striking with a large red patches on their heads and throats. They are also found in in forests and wooded areas but are not frequent visitors to backyard feeders. They are migrants and uncommon in the winter in our area. They like to eat the sap and insects from the sap wells of Aspen, Birch, Maple, and Elm trees. They have the same nesting behaviors as the other woodpeckers and will also lay 4-6 white eggs.
I often use behaviors and sound to identify birds, especially if they are difficult to see. All woodpeckers fly in an up-down bounce-like pattern so this can be a clue. I do see other birds like Chickadees and Titmice do this also though. Woodpeckers will often be perching with their head back or scaling trees. I think their different sounds are really the best way to identify them. They make different sounds. As for chirps, a Downy sounds like a lot of other birds to me-a short, quiet chirping. The Hairy has a loud, sharp distinctive chirp you can hear below. All 3 birds have a woodpecker trilling sound. The Downy’s is prettiest to me-sweet and smooth sounding. Both the Hairy and Yellow-bellied have sharper, less melodious trills. The Sapsucker makes a very distinctive whining sound. I do not have this sound recorded but will try to get one. You can distinguish these 3 woodpeckers from their pecking sounds too. The Yellow-bellied sounds like he is pecking on metal-a tinnier, hallow sound. The Hairy and Downy sound similar but have different “drumming” patterns. The Hairy pecks like 25 times-fast and furious and then takes a 20 second break. The Downy pecks around 15 times, more slowly and has shorter pauses between sets.
I included some photos and audio and video that I had below-enjoy! This is the last WINTER series blog for this season as the migrants are already arriving and we need to get you ready for some of those. If you missed the last 5 blogs, check them out. I appreciate all comments and shares to let others learn about our local birds too. The TikTok link is a video of a Downy from Fannie Stebbins in Longmeadow. Robin 😊 https://www.tiktok.com/@robinsbirds2022/video/7074954635936582958?is_from_webapp=1&sender_device=pc&web_id7075763619375793707