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Hairy Woodpecker Life History


ForestsHairy Woodpeckers are common in mature woodlands with medium to large trees. They also occur in woodlots, suburbs, parks, and cemeteries. You can find them equally commonly in coniferous forests, deciduous forests, or mixtures, and generally up to about 6,500 feet elevation. Also found at forest edges, around beaver ponds, in recently burned forests, southern swamps, open pine, oak, or birch woodlands, and orchards.Back to top


InsectsMore than 75% of the Hairy Woodpecker’s diet is made up of insects, particularly the larvae of wood-boring beetles and bark beetles, ants, and moth pupae in their cocoons. To a lesser extent they also eat bees, wasps, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, and rarely cockroaches, crickets, and grasshoppers. Bark beetles sometimes cause extensive infestations in thousands of live trees, their populations reaching into the billions. When this happens, Hairy Woodpeckers often appear in large numbers to eat the larvae. A similar pattern happens in forests that have recently burned: wood-boring beetles become very numerous. Hairy and other woodpecker species can become very common in these areas and achieve high nesting success. Hairy Woodpeckers have helped control pest outbreaks such as codling moths in orchards. Elsewhere, a little more than 20% of Hairy Woodpecker diet is made up of fruit and seeds. Hairy Woodpeckers are common visitors at feeders, eating suet and sunflower seeds.Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityHairy Woodpeckers typically excavate their nests in the dead stub of a living tree, especially trees with heartrot, or in a dead tree. The cavity is often in a branch or stub that isn’t perfectly vertical, with the entrance hole on the underside. This location may help keep flying squirrels and sapsuckers from trying to take over the hole. Hairy Woodpeckers begin excavating their nests less than 2 weeks before egg-laying begins.

Nest Description

The entrance to the nest is about 2 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide, leading to a cavity 8-12 inches deep. The inside widens at the bottom to make room for the eggs and the incubating bird. It’s typically bare except for a bed of wood chips at the bottom for the eggs and chicks to rest on.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2.1-2.5 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.8 in (1.8-1.9 cm)
Incubation Period:11-12 days
Nestling Period:28-30 days
Egg Description:All white.
Condition at Hatching:Naked, pink skin, a sharp egg tooth at the tip of bill; eyes closed, clumsy.
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Bark ForagerHairy Woodpeckers typically hitch up tree trunks or along large branches, leaning back against their stiff tail feathers and springing upward with both feet at once. Unlike Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers never feed on weed stalks, cattails, or reeds. They sometimes forage at the bases of trees, particularly on ponderosa pines, which are often attacked just above ground level by a species of bark beetle. During conflicts, Hairy Woodpeckers raise both wings over their back at a 45-degree angle, crane back their head and make shrill cries; they sometimes even do this in flight. Courting birds stretch out their necks, point their bills high, and bob their heads from side to side, flicking their wings as they circle a tree trunk. They also sometimes chase each other in fast, looping flights through the trees.Back to top


Low Concern

Hairy Woodpeckers are common and widespread, and their populations increased approximately 0.7% per year between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 8.9 million and rates them 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Despite healthy populations, there is concern that pressures such as the fragmentation of large forest tracts into smaller parcels and competition for nest holes from the European Starling could ultimately threaten Hairy Woodpeckers.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Jackson, Jerome A., Henri R. Ouellet and Bette J. Jackson. (2002). Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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