Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

The Bob & Weave of the Hairy Woodpecker

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the enclosed DVD. I made this video clip of a Hairy Woodpecker that was clinging to a tree just below a block of suet. The woodpecker kept bobbing and weaving, but never ate anything. What the heck was it doing?

– Bonnie, Quincy, MA


I like it, Bonnie,

I like that you sent me a DVD. Getting presents in the mail doesn’t happen to me nearly often enough. I have a theory that my postal carrier is stealing my gifts and replacing them with bills, but I haven’t been able to prove it yet. I also like the fact you sent me a video of this odd bird behavior. Most of the time when I get questions about birds doing something strange they are either over the phone, or worse, in person. That’s when I get a demonstration. An otherwise normal person will walk up to me and suddenly begin gyrating like a bad Elvis impersonator. I don’t know whether to laugh or call 911. Usually I just call some other people over and then ask the person to repeat the demonstration. I hate to laugh by myself.

The Hairy Woodpecker, the larger cousin of the cute Downy Woodpecker, is one of the most widespread woodpeckers in all of North America. It can be found nesting in both the frigid forests of Alaska and the tropical woodlands of Panama. It is also just as comfortable living in the vast wilds of Newfoundland as it is on the balmy islands of the Bahamas. And, unlike many birds that venture into northerly locations only when the weather is good, hairys don’t migrate away when winter sets in. They pretty much stay put no matter what the weather conditions are. There is some occasional movement of birds in the extreme north but for the most part, if you have a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers living in your yard in July, you are going to have the same pair in your yard in January. I hate to sound sappy, but I find that kind of comforting.

If a bird wants to remain in your yard (actually, neighborhood) throughout the year, it had better be prepared to defend it. With Hairy Woodpeckers that defense is most evident during the breeding season. As some of you already know, woodpeckers announce their territory by drumming on the loudest sounding board they can find. If you are lucky, a sounding board will be a hollow tree. But it may also be an aluminum gutter, a metal chimney cap, or the wooden trim on your house. When that happens my phone starts to ring and I have to listen to a steady stream cuss words, like it’s my fault. With most songbirds only the male sings to announce a couple’s territory but woodpeckers have no such division of labor. Both sexes use sounding boards to drum on. So, homeowners have double the odds of a woodpecker smashing its beak against the sides of their homes, and I have twice the odds of getting a phone call laced with cuss words.

A few weeks ago we wrote about a Red-headed Woodpecker that had claimed a particular yard as its territory. The fiery redhead attacked and drove off any bird that came within range. Hairy Woodpeckers aren’t as psychotic as that redhead, but they will still, in their own feeble way, defend food. One defense the birds employ is to raise their wings over their back in an effort to make themselves look bigger and badder than competing birds. Another thing they do to protect food is called “bill-waving.” As the name implies the bird will shake its bill back and forth as if it were saying: “No, you are not going to get near my food or I will peck your face off.” I don’t know about you, but that would get me to back off. Having my face pecked off isn’t high on my to-do list.

As I mentioned earlier, hairys typically remain in the same territory year-round. They also stay with the same mate, year after year. Sometimes a third woodpecker will try to move into a pair’s territory. The organized hairys have a set procedure when that happens. If the intruding bird is a male, the resident male will be the one that has to kick out the interloper. If the new bird is a female, then the resident female becomes the aggressor and a good old catfight is on. Yes, I know. That last line is inappropriate on so many levels. I think I’ve been watching way too much roller derby.

In the video you sent, Bonnie, the woodpecker was doing some serious bill-waving, but it was also doing some fancy footwork. I’ve never seen a Hairy Woodpecker make those exact moves before, but I’m pretty sure they were related to food defense. That hairy was making certain no others came near its suet. Either that or your bird was trying out for Dancing with the Stars. Hey, you may want send that video to ABC-TV. Maybe they could create a new show called Waltzing with Woodpeckers. Why not? It certainly would be better than what’s on now.