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Black and white woodpeckers pose ID challenge

What's black and white and read all over? Just about anyone knows the answer to this age-old riddle: a newspaper. If, on the other hand, a person was to pose this question to a group of birders interested in woodpeckers, that person would tweak the question slightly. Instead of "read all over," it would have to be "red on the back of the head." The answer would then be a male of either the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) or the Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus).

Both of these common woodpeckers are entirely black and white and very recognizable to Americans. Both are found from Alaska to Florida but the Hairy Woodpecker, with the largest range of any American woodpecker, can be found as far south as Central America. And both strongly resemble each other with a few differences.

Curious about their common names? Both are named for the tuft of feathers at the base of the bill; the Hairy Woodpecker's being a bit more bristly.

Thick black eyeline, broad white stripes above and below that, white breast, white back, black wings barred with white. That pretty much describes both species. The difference between the sexes (of both species) is determined by the presence of a small red patch near the back of the head in males.

Now the differences. Size is most notable. A handy pneumonic was passed on to me many years ago: "huge Hairy, dinky Downy." A Hairy reaches about 7.5 inches from tip to tail while a Downy doesn't make six (it's the smallest American woodpecker). The bill of the Hairy is fairly long and thick while that of the Downy is short and somewhat needle-like. Both have white feathers on the sides of their tails but the Downy's is barred with black. The Hairy is more reserved and more likely to prefer larger trees where it spends most of its time on the main trunk or larger branches. The Downy is more tame and approachable and tends to work smaller branches in a tree.

Their voices are similar but can be separated with practice. The "pick" call of a Downy or "peek" from a Hairy is reminiscent of an American Robin but harsher. And both sing a rattling song akin to a Belted Kingfisher's.

They feed mainly on insects retrieved from the bark of trees supplemented with lesser quantities of fruit and seeds. And virtually everybody with feeders knows the birds' affinity for suet.

The hollow sound of a drumming woodpecker is recognizable to young and old. However, the birds are not drilling holes when drumming. Instead, the birds are engaged in courtship behavior or announcing territory to rivals. Drilling holes is an activity carried out with precise, single strokes along with some prying. And it's usually not very loud.

Across their respective ranges, these birds are recognized for their geographical variety. The Hairy Woodpecker complex consists of up to 17 subspecies. Generally the farther north a person goes, the larger and darker the birds will be. Head west and these woodpeckers lose a lot of white on their wings. The Rocky Mountain race of the Hairy Woodpecker sports nearly entirely black wings. A fact that confused me years ago and led me to believe it was something entirely different.

These non-migratory residents offer a great chance to observe a truly unique part of the avifauna up close. Our recent warming weather has stimulated the percussive drumming to a very noticeable level. With some patience, it shouldn't be difficult to spot these portraits of black and white. But only the males will have red...and it won't be all over.