A juvenile hairy woodpecker hangs upside down while it feeds on suet. (Ed Robinson photo)

It seems unfair that our truncated summer is winding down, but the change of seasons is immutable. Many look forward to the fine weather and glorious colors of autumn, despite the cold season to follow. Those who removed their bird feeders for the summer will soon be hanging them anew with fresh food for their favorite birds.

One of the most reliable birds at our feeders is the hairy woodpecker. While they have gradually adapted to dining on the black sunflower seeds we put out for the songbirds, woodpeckers prefer suet and other fatty foods, especially those varieties containing nuts, fruit or insects. During most of the year, woodpeckers dine on ants, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and bees, but suet provides an energy boost in winter cold. Woodpeckers have even been observed tucking a few bits of suet in nearby holes for later use.

The hairy is considered mid-sized among the world’s 240 species of woodpeckers (23 in North America, mostly nonmigratory). It is sometimes hard to distinguish the hairy from a close relative, the downy woodpecker. Both species have striking black-and-white plumage on their wings with white underparts and white in the central back feathers. In the hairy woodpecker, those white back feathers often look ruffled, leading to its scientific name, Dryobates villosus (villosus is the Latin word for hairy). The hairy is thinner and noticeably larger than the downy, up to 10 inches tall, and its bill is longer, more than half the depth of its head.

With wings spanning 15 inches, the hairy is a capable flyer, mixing in short glides after several wing beats. A reliable way to distinguish between the sexes is the color on the back of their head: males have bright red spots while females have few to no red feathers. The eyes are a dark, reddish brown and the legs are dark gray.

The hairy has several vocalizations, including a sharp “peek” when disturbed or stressed. Most often we hear them when they “drum” on a tree, a series of sharp raps that may extend for 30-35 beats. The drum call of the hairy is noticeably faster, deeper and louder than that of the downy.

Woodpeckers become more vocal in late winter and early spring, as the males stake out territories of a few acres and seek to attract a willing female. The male may begin excavating a new den hole in a dead tree, but the female generally confirms the location and does the finish work on their home. After breeding, she lays three to seven eggs and both sexes share in parenting through the brood and fledging phases, around six weeks in total.

Parents feed their young by regurgitating food down their throats, aided by those long bills. One advantage of having woodpeckers around is that their discarded nest sites become valuable housing options for songbirds and small mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels.

A common question about woodpeckers is how they can manage to smash their bills into trees for hours on end without ending up with concussions. Scientists believe there are several reasons for this, starting with powerful neck muscles that absorb some of the vibrations. The bill is rigid overall but has a bit of flex at the tip. Finally, the brain rests within a skull that has a softer inner lining to serve as a shock absorber. Sometimes woodpeckers decide to punch holes in buildings like our cabin and it can be difficult to persuade them to move on to other surroundings!

Cornell’s Birds of the World reports that hairy woodpeckers are one of the most widespread birds in North America, found from Alaska and southern Canada all the way down through central Mexico and Central America. They favor a mix of deciduous and coniferous forest habitat, finding food on the outer bark and inside the tree. Hairy and downy woodpeckers seem to prefer different parts of trees, limiting their competition for food. Both are highly adept at climbing and hopping around trunks and branches, often hanging upside down with their tail feathers serving to brace them.

While many birds are in a state of decline, the good news is that the hairy may be increasing in numbers as our forest acreage increases and logging practices now favor leaving older trees in place. The 2020 estimate by the North American Breeding Bird Survey put the hairy at roughly 9 million birds across the continent. Enjoy them this winter!

Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and education efforts.