Good Natured in St. Charles: Sizing up hairy woodpeckers as a wood walker

Hairy woodpeckers can be distinguished from downies by their larger size, larger bill in relation to the head and a lack of spots on the outer tail feathers.

Although the word “hairy” isn’t itself inherently bad, it’s often used to describe a condition that is less than ideal. A hairy situation typically is one that’s turned treacherous. A hairy problem can be tricky to solve. And a hairy sink … well that’s just gross.

A hairy woodpecker, on the other hand, is super cool.

Here in Kane County, hairy woodpeckers, aka hairies, are definitely a minority when compared to their smaller cousins, the downy woodpeckers, or downies. Should you be lucky enough to spot a hairy, you certainly want to take a second look.

Both hairies and downies belong to the genus Dryobates, a name derived from Greek words meaning “wood walker.” Both species are predominantly black and white, with checkered wings and a white stripe on their backs. And the males of both species have a splash of red on the back of the head.

The difference lies in their size. Downies are the smallest of our local woodpeckers, measuring about 6 ½ inches in length, while hairies are 9 ½ inches or more – like a downy on steroids. (If food dominates your thoughts like it does mine, you can think of a downy woodpecker as a Beef Shack mini Italian beef, and a hairy woodpecker as a full-sized sandwich. Pro tip: As you’re enjoying your beef, arrange your giardiniera to replicate the red markings of the males. Voila! Eating and birding in one fell swoop.)

Beef sandwich sizes are one thing, but bird measurements are another matter entirely. A few inches difference isn’t much help when the critter in question is 25 feet away and pecking its way around a massive oak tree.

In cases like that, try to focus on the bird’s bill, and how big it is relative to the rest of the body. On the downy, the bill is small, almost like a thorn poking out of the front of the bird’s head. The hairy’s beak, by contrast, is nearly as long as the head itself.

I was reminded of this difference just the other day when I saw, for the first time in several months, a hairy woodpecker near our Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles.

I say saw, but I actually heard the bird first. It was tap-tap-tapping on a dead branch in a tree, picking away at the loose bark and digging for larvae and other treats embedded in the wood. (This foraging behavior is decidedly different from the rappity-rap-rapping, or drumming, that woodpeckers are famous for. This behavior, often executed on hollow branches, trees and even gutters, should be starting shortly, as woodpeckers of all species begin to drum to declare territories in preparation for breeding.)

About the same time I pinned down which tree the sound was coming from, the bird hopped from one branch to another, and I was able to see some red on the back of its head. Aha! A male.

It took another minute or so before I was able to spot the bill and note its large size. Right about then, the bird noticed he was being watched. For a few moments he stared back. Maybe he was sizing up me and my beak?

Whatever his motives, he soon decided he’d seen enough. As he flew off, I watched him move in that undulating way woodpeckers (and finches) are known for: flapping and rising, then gliding and descending – like a little black-and-white roller coaster in mid-air.

This hairy sighting got me to thinking: How is the species faring in our area? A look at Kane County Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count data shows that downy woodpeckers tend to outnumber hairies by a ratio of roughly 8:1. There is a similar trend in KCA’s Spring Bird Count data, with birders sighting an average of about 70 downies versus nine hairies per year.

I suspect the main reason for this disparity again relates back to size. Small and compact, downy woodpeckers can forage on many different types of plants, including those with herbaceous stems. But the hunky hairies need to hunt on woody trunks and branches that can support their weight; hence their distribution is determined by the size and quality of woodland habitat available.

Although they are not present in great numbers, hairy woodpeckers’ status appears stable. Like a Cheezy Beef on garlic bread, they’re unusual but not impossible to find … when you know where to look.

The warmer weather we’ve experienced recently has caused some arthropods, aka woodpecker food, to start moving around. (I found a spider on my front door the other night!) If you see a black-and-white bird with checkerboard wings probing the bark of a tree, try to figure out if it’s “mini” or “full” size. Then try to catch a glimpse of the bill.

With any luck at all, you just might find yourself in a situation that’s – say it with me – hairy!

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at