Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Harriet the Hairy Woodpecker

An early snowfall has flocked the garden in frost and snow, and subfreezing temperatures have kept it that way.

The path that leads to a nearby pond, which was squishy and slippery with wet leaves just two weeks ago, now crunches underfoot as if one were walking on thin panes of glass. Branches bristle with small spears of ice in strange shapes.

The cold and ice make it harder for birds to find food and stay warm (despite their being well adapted to life in this climate or they wouldn't be living here in the first place), so we make sure the seed and suet feeders are well stocked. Every morning we bring in the hummingbird feeder that's frozen overnight and replace it with a fresh one, under the imperious gaze of the Anna's hummingbird hovering nearby like an impatient customer waiting for the waiter to clear a table in a crowded brunch spot.

Though I hate winter, I have to admit it's a great season for backyard birding. Birds that were hidden by leaves and more often heard than seen are now easily spotted. They'd be hard to miss even if they didn't come close to the house to access the feeders. I rarely see the calico Varied Thrushes or the rusty Fox Sparrows in other seasons.

So it was a wonderful surprise to glance out the window the other morning and find a new species at the feeder: a big female Hairy Woodpecker, chiseling away at the suet with her sturdy beak.

Hairy Woodpeckers are a common species, found throughout North America and into Central America. They look like a supersized version of the Downy Woodpecker. The little Downy Woodpeckers are far more likely to turn up in a garden, because Hairy Woodpeckers are more at home in deep, mature forests. 

In winter, however, Hairy Woodpeckers will venture out of their comfort zone and make forays into parks and gardens. Our home is close to a conservation area thick with trees as well as scattered areas of deciduous woodlands and remnants of coniferous forest, and the cold snap drove this one to forage a little farther than she usually does.

It's easy to tell that this one is a female because she doesn't have a red patch on the back of her head like the male does. As for distinguishing a Downy from a Hairy, size is the first clue (the Hairy is a third bigger than the Downy and weighs about three times as much). The Hairy's stout bill is about as long as its head; the Downy has a tiny bill. And, if you're close enough to the bird or have good binoculars, you can see that the Hairy's outer tail feathers don't have spots like the Downy's. Except, of course, when they do. Some populations have spots on those feathers. Tricksy birds.

Wikimedia Commons photo
I have always wondered, though, just why this attractive bird has a name like Hairy Woodpecker. It doesn't look any hairier to me than any other bird, and certainly isn't a shaggy mop compared to the Downy, which likewise doesn't look particularly downy. 

According to Dictionary of Birds of the United States by Joel Ellis Holloway, the Hairy Woodpecker's scientific name, Picoides villosus, translates to "hairy" or "shaggy" woodpecker and is a reference to "the bristles covering the nostrils." The Downy's scientific name, Picoides pubescens, translates to "downy woodpecker" and also refers to the nasal bristles, "which are shorter and appear softer than those of the hairy woodpecker."


OK, technically they're not nose hairs. They're rictal bristles. But still. As we said sarcastically in the early 1970s, thinking we were very clever, "Same difference." 

Well, perhaps after naming all those red-headed and ladder-backed woodpeckers, there wasn't much left in the nomenclature bank to dispense on these striking birds. 

For a few minutes while researching this bird, I thought I had stumbled upon a possible bit of backwards induction in its naming when I learned that one outdated common name for this species is "Harry," and that various Pacific subspecies of Hairy Woodpeckers are grouped under the name Picoides villosus harrisi--with the harrisi stemming from an old name for one of these birds, Harris's Woodpecker. 

The Harris in question is Edward Harris, an amateur ornithologist who was a friend of Audubon's and accompanied him on some of his travels. (Harris's Hawk and Harris's Sparrow are also named for him.) Was "Hairy" a corruption of "Harry"? (That still wouldn't explain the Downy, unless it was named Downy by default in comparison to the Hairy...) 

Alas, no. Audubon wrote at length about both Hairy and Downy woodpeckers and took note of the bristles, describing how the bird had "a large tuft of reversed stiffish feathers on each side of the base of the upper mandible, concealing the nostrils; the feathers in the angle of the lower mandible also stiffish, elongated, and directed forward."

He even observed them while hanging out with the aforementioned Harris: "I have found this species, when in company with my friend Harris and my youngest son, in the very midst of vast salt-marshes, about the mouths of the Mississippi, where here and there a straggling willow or cotton-tree bush occurred, as gay, busy, noisy, and contented as if it had been in the midst of the woods."

Of course, these poor birds might not have been so gay, busy, noisy and contented if they knew that Audubon and his friends were likely to blast them with shotguns. Notes Audubon of this species, "it clings, when shot, to the trunk or branch of the tree, until quite dead, and even remains sticking for several minutes more." 

I realize Audubon's shooting sprees added a lot to our storehouse of ornithological knowledge, but it can be unsettling reading his descriptions of plugging away at the poor birds. 

Modern scientists aren't quite so gun-happy, though birds still meet their maker in the name of Science. How else would we know that as many as 100 nasty little wood-borers may be found in the stomach of a single Hairy Woodpecker? It's certainly doing its bit to keep its forest home healthy, gobbling up insects and their larvae. 

An equally cool statistic (provided by a living bird, this time) is that it can drum on a tree 25 times in the span of one second. We'll be listening for that later this winter; the woodpeckers will be forming the percussion section for the symphony of springtime by then, just as the male Anna's hummingbirds defy winter with their exuberant courtship displays.


  1. I love that I can count on you for an interesting and humorous read. A bird's nose hairs ... who'd a thunk!

    1. Thanks, Rachael :) I sort of have a rule that I don't write about a bird until I've snapped a picture of it--not that I'm going to win photo prizes for pictures of birds taken on a tiny camera through a window, but it does work kind of like a writing deadline. I didn't know about the nose hairs either til I did research on this bird!