Like a large, long-billed version of the downy woodpecker, the hairy is a widespread generalist of a variety of forests and woodlands over most of the continent. Polytypic. Length 9".
Plumage pattern is nearly identical to the downy’s, with long white patch down the back, variable white spotting on the wing coverts and flight feathers, and mostly unmarked underparts. The outer tail feathers are usually unmarked white. Adult: male shows red nuchal bar, often divided vertically by black (especially in some eastern populations); red is lacking in female.
Variation is extensive but generally clinal. About 17 subspecies, 11 north of Mexico. Nominate villosus is widespread in the East; southeastern birds (audubonii) are smaller, buffier (less pure white) below, and with less white on the back. Boreal septentrionalis, from interior Alaska east to Quebec, is the largest, whitest subspecies. Newfoundland terranovae is distinctive, with white back reduced and barred (especially in immatures), some black spotting on outer rectrices, and often with fine black streaking on the sides and flanks. In the West, picoideus of the Queen Charlotte Islands is most distinctive, with gray-brown underparts; black markings in the white back stripe, sides, and flanks; and strong black bars on the outer rectrices. Northwestern harrisi and sitkensis have gray-brown underparts and face and reduced white on the wings. Hyloscopus of California and northern Baja California is smaller, paler (light gray-buff) below, and whiter on the head. Three additional subspecies of the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain regions (orius, monitcola, leucothorectis) are moderate to large in size and white to very pale buff below; compared with eastern and boreal birds they have reduced white on the back and greatly reduced white spotting on the wing coverts. The subspecies icastus, ranging from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico south to central Mexico, is similar but smaller. Four Middle American subspecies from eastern and southern Mexico south to western Panama are smaller still (some nearly as small as the downy woodpecker) and are variably buffy to deep buff-brown on the underparts. There are 2 additional subspecies on the Bahamas. As in all woodpeckers, facial and underpart feathering can become stained with pitch and soot, so some color variation is not related to subspecies.
The downy woodpecker is similar in pattern but much smaller, with a small, short bill (much smaller than half the length of the head). Beware a recently fledged hairy with much a shorter bill than adult’s; black bars on the outer tail feathers distinguish a downy from a hairy. See the American three-toed woodpecker. Note that some populations of hairy (especially in Newfoundland) can show barred backs (especially as juveniles), and some Three-toed populations have nearly pure white backs.
Call: a piercing, sharp peek or pee-ik. The rattle call (“whinny”) is a fast, slightly descending series of these peek calls. Drum: rapid roll of about 25 beats in 1 second.
Status and Distribution
Fairly common; uncommon to rare in the South and Florida. Year-round: the hairy occupies a wide range of coniferous and deciduous forests from sea level to tree line; such habitats are usually densely wooded, but in some areas are more open and parklike. Dispersal: although generally nonmigratory, individuals can disperse long distances, and small irruptive movements sometimes occur. Larger, more northerly birds regularly occur in the Northeast in fall and winter. Recorded in fall and winter on the southern plains and Pacific coast lowlands well away from breeding habitats.
Declines that have been noted in many areas are thought to be due to fragmentation of forests, loss of old-growth trees, and nest site competition with European starlings.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006