Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers
Nature Bulletin No. 49   January 19, 1945
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Robert Mann, Superintendent of Conservation

Walking through the woods these days you are likely to hear a "tap, tap, tap", over and over. Search and you will discover a black-and-white woodpecker busily circling a dead tree or a decaying limb, hopping up or hopping down to circle again and again -- tapping, tapping. When the tell-tale vibration reveals the presence of a cocoon or a cluster of insect eggs beneath the bark, he drives in with his beak, extracts the morsel with his tongue, and resumes his tapping.

The Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker are among the few species of birds common in the Chicago region all winter. Both are black and white but the Hairy is much larger and its two outside tail feathers are entirely white. The Downy is our smallest woodpecker and its two outside tail feathers are white with two broad black bars.

Woodpeckers are specially adapted for their job. Their legs are short and stout. Each foot has a pair of toes in front and a pair in the rear, with curved, sharp-pointed claws to suspend the body from the front and support it behind. A third support is given by pressing the tail, with its stiff-pointed feathers, against the tree. The neck is short and stout; the head large and strong-boned. The beak is hard and chisel-shaped to pierce bark for food or gouge out a deep nesting cavity in decaying wood. The tongue is long, slender, cylindrical, barbed on the sides, and has a pointed, horny tip. It can be thrust into a small hole, far beyond the end of the beak, to spear and drag out an insect. It would be handy to have a tongue like that for getting marrow out of a soup bone.

Unlike the Golden-winged Woodpecker -- commonly known as the Flicker or Yellow-hammer -- and that gaudy, saucy clown, the Red- headed Woodpecker, the Downy and the Hairy are always too busy to be noisy or afraid. Except for that intermittent, subdued "tap, tap, tap" and sometimes a faint squeaky chirp, you never hear them. It would be interesting to find out where they spend these cold winter nights. Probably in hollow trees.

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