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
DOWNY AND HAIRY WOODPECKERS
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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Update: June 2012