Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

GenusPicoides (1)
SizeLength: 16.5 - 26 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 33 - 41 cm (2)
Weight40 - 95 g (2)
Top facts

The hairy woodpecker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

With its straight-backed posture, cleanly striped, squarish head, and long, stiff tail feathers, the hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) is somewhat soldierly in its appearance (2).

This striking woodpecker gets its name from the long, thread-like white feathers which run down the middle of its black back (2) (4), creating a sharply contrasting pattern. Its underparts are generally white to greyish-white (4), while the wings are black with white markings (2) (4). Both sexes of the hairy woodpecker are alike in appearance, except that the male has a red band which punctuates the back of the white-striped head (3) (4) (5).

Proportionally, the bill of the hairy woodpecker is rather long, large and robust, usually being the same length or longer than the head (4). The bill is straight (2), and is dark grey to blackish with a whitish, chisel-like tip (3) (4).

The legs and feet of the hairy woodpecker are grey or bluish-grey (3), while the eyes are reddish brown. The juveniles differ from the adults in having greyish-brown eyes (3) (4) and duller feather colouration (3).

With 17 subspecies currently recognised (4), all showing regional differences in colouration, patterning and size (2) (4), the hairy woodpecker is one of the most geographically variable bird species in North America (4).

The hairy woodpecker is known to make an abrupt rattling or whinnying noise (2) (4), as well as an explosive ‘peek’ call (2) (4) (5) (6). Like other woodpecker species, the hairy woodpecker also uses non-vocal means of communication, including drumming. Both male and female hairy woodpeckers drum their beaks rapidly and evenly on trees, and it is believed that this serves several functions, from establishing and defending a territory, to being part of courtship (2) (4).

The hairy woodpecker has the most extensive range of any species within the Picoides genus, occurring across North and Central America (4), from Alaska and Canada southwards to Panama (5). This species is also found in certain parts of the Bahamas (4) (7).

Mature forests and woodlands are the preferred habitat of the hairy woodpecker (2) (4) (5) (8), specifically those with medium to large trees (2) at elevations between 900 and 3,450 metres above sea level (7). This species is equally common in deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests (2), although its preferences often vary depending on the geographic location (4).

The hairy woodpecker is also sometimes found in woodlots, parks, cemeteries (2) (4), and river groves (5). This species is known to be present in recently burned forests and stands of trees which have been infested by bark beetles (2).

The hairy woodpecker forages along tree trunks and the main branches of large trees (2), searching for the insects that make up more than 75 percent of its diet (2) (4). It mainly takes the larvae of wood-boring beetles and bark beetles and the pupae of moths (2), but ants are also a key food item, and other invertebrates such as bees, wasps, spiders, millipedes and caterpillars are eaten in smaller quantities (2) (4) (6).

To find its prey, the hairy woodpecker uses a variety of techniques. It will usually either glean insects from the surface of the bark, or locate prey hidden within the tree by rapidly tapping along a branch or trunk, detecting differences in resonance which might signal the presence of a wood-boring insect tunnel. Once a prey item has been detected, the hairy woodpecker chisels away at the wood to excavate it (4) (9), and then extracts it using its long, barb-tipped tongue (8).

As well as insects, the hairy woodpecker also consumes fruits, seeds, acorns and nuts (4) (6) (9). This species is known to drink sap from wells made in the bark by sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus spp.) (2) (4) (8), and has been reported to peck into sugarcane to extract the sugary juice (2) (4).

The hairy woodpecker moves up tree trunks by means of ‘hitching’, which involves making its way up the bark in short leaps (8), using its stiff tail feathers both as support and as a spring to aid its upward movement (2) (4). Generally a solitary bird, the hairy woodpecker characteristically roosts and sleeps alone in a cavity that it has excavated (4).

This monogamous species (4) usually locates a territory and forms a pair bond with a mate by early spring (4) (8). Although the timing of nesting varies depending on the location, it generally occurs between late March and early June (4).

The hairy woodpecker nests in a cavity excavated within a tree trunk (2) (6). The female lays a single brood of between 3 and 6 white eggs (2), which are incubated by both sexes (8) for 11 to 12 days (2) (4). Both the male and female feed the young (4) (8), which fledge the nest after about 28 to 30 days (2) (4).

At present, the hairy woodpecker is relatively common and widespread (2), and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (4). However, it is thought that its populations may be declining as a result of pressures such as forest fragmentation, competition with the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) for nest holes (2) (4), and the loss of old-growth forests (4).

There are currently no known specific conservation measures in place for the hairy woodpecker.

More information on the hairy woodpecker and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2012)
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Hairy woodpecker (May, 2012)
  3. Winkler, H. and Christie, D.A. (2010) Woodpeckers. A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London.
  4. Jackson, J.A., Ouellet, H.R. and Jackson, B.J. (2002) Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  5. Peterson, R.T. and Peterson, V.M. (2002) Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
  6. Turcotte, W.H. and Watts, D.L. (1999) Birds of Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi.
  7. BirdLife International (May, 2012)
  8. Eastman, J.A. (1997) Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  9. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Birds: An Essential Guide to Common Birds of North America. MobileReference, Boston.