Photos of a Probable White-headed Woodpecker X Hairy Woodpecker


This image of the presumed White-headed Woodpecker X Hairy Woodpecker hybrid shows the almost entirely black back, wings, and nape. Also, note the extensive white in the face, which includes white on the forecrown, white mottling in the black crown, and a very broad white supercilium that flairs at the back and creates a white break between the black on the crown and the red nuchal patch.

While birding along Winter Ridge in central Lake County, Oregon on 19 June 2010, Shawneen Finnegan and I found and photographed a male Picoides woodpecker that we believe to be a hybrid White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus) X Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus).

The images here are a sampling of several dozen that we captured. We feel that the plumage fits what a cross of these two species might look like and we are unable to come up with any other plausible explanation for the overall appearance of this bird. We encourage your comments and invite you to offer up other theories that might explain the unique appearance of this woodpecker.

We ask that you post comments directly on this site so that all who view these images can refer to them without having to access them at other listservs.  All comments will be permanently archived along with this photo essay.

I first spotted this bird as it flew across Forest Service Road 2901, which runs from Oregon Hwy 31 to Fremont Point. I called it out as a White-headed Woodpecker in flight because it appeared to have a lot white in the face and it looked to be entirely black above aside from white patches at the base of the primaries. It landed facing away from us on log just off the west side of the road. As I attempted to get Shawneen on the bird, it took off and flew a short distance before landing on the side of large Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). As it flew, I noticed that the sides of the tail appeared white. When it landed, my view of it was blocked by another tree, but Shawneen had it in sight and immediately said, "It's a Hairy, but it's really dark." 


The upper photo offers a nice view of the white forehead and forecrown and the white supercilium wrapping up and behind the black on the crown. The white mottling in the black area in front of the eye and in the black malar stripe is also apparent in the upper photo. Finally, notice the dark gray and black patches and mottling on the underparts that can be seen in both the upper and lower photo. Such markings are not found on typical Hairy Woodpeckers. 


After briefly comparing notes about what we had seen, it became apparent that this was an interesting bird, so I started after it in an effort to get some photos. Shawneen opted to stay behind in hopes that I would be able to get close enough to get some good shots. The bird moved from tree to tree actively feeding before finally settling on a very large Ponderosa Pine on the east side of the road. It moved around the trunk of this tree for about 2-3 minutes before flying off and disappearing deep in the woods.

Since it was early evening (about 6:30PM) the interior of the stand of trees where we found the bird was not well-lit. I ended up shooting at fairly slow shutter speeds (1/80th to 1/320th of a second) on most of the shots, so many are not in good focus or they are backlit. However, the bird eventually moved into more direct light and I was able to get a few images that are fairly crisp. I stopped taking photos a few times to look at the bird, so I would not have to rely entirely on the photos to capture the essence of the bird. By the time I returned to find Shawneen, I was pretty sure that the bird had to be a White-headed X Hairy hybrid. Upon looking at the photos, Shawneen agreed with this conclusion.


Though not in great focus, this image shows how the black on the crown is more restricted than it would be on a typical Hairy Woodpecker and it is also separated by white from the red nuchal patch. Also note that there is no white spotting in the folded wings other than the black and white checkerboard pattern in the primaries.

Again, we invite your thoughts and comments about this bird. Please share them in the "comments" box below.

All photos taken by Dave Irons


This is such an interesting bird. When I initially saw the bird I knew it wasn’t a White-headed and the only thing that popped into my mind was Hairy. Yet it was too dark which left either a melanistic Hairy or, as the photos suggest, a hybrid of the two species we both initially thought it was. One thing that isn’t mentioned in the write-up is that the call sounded much like a Hairy Woodpecker. Indeed, this was a very fun find.


I certainly can’t argue with your conclusions — the plumage intermediacy is pretty striking. Although I’m not aware of this combination (or any hybrids involving Hairy or White-headed), hybrids within New World Picoides certainly exist (e.g. Downy X Nuttall’s, Ladder-backed X Nuttall’s). I was curious about vocalizations — Shawneen says it gave a Hairy-like call, but this isn’t too different from how a single note (from a normally 2-3 noted) White-headed call would sound. It would be interesting (if the bird is relocated) to see if it ever gave double-note calls.


This is a very interesting find considering the plumage differences and large range of overlap for White-headed and Hairy. It seems odd to find a White-headed x Hairy hybrid considering it may not have been reported by anyone in the past. I’m certainly not arguing with the authors or with Kimball as he has handled a lot more White-headed and Hairy’s than I have and he co-authored the BNA account for WHWO.

I know in the White-headed’s I have handled between San Diego and the southern Cascades, some occasionally show a few white-tipped feathers on the back and sometimes a small white patch of feathers on the belly. I seem to recall most of those were female and I always wondered if the white patch would have been larger if they were not incubating at the time. The dorsal and ventral white patches were nothing to the extent of the white on this photographed individual. Kimball’s comment about the vocalizations is an important note as both species can sound quite similiar, even when you are focused on searching for one species or the other.

It took me hours to get decent photos of White-headed’s when I was researching them, so as a birder and photographer, I have to congratulate you guys on some great photos and a great find!


Amazing!!! A few years ago (2006??) I observed a White-headed Woodpecker at a nest in Stevens County, WA that was acting suspiciously amorous with a Hairy Woodpecker – no other White-headeds observed in the area. I took notes which I have somewhere. I meant to go back and confirm the pairing absolutely, but never made it. I’m in Idaho for the summer so I don’t have access to my notes….


I ended up on this site having googled “Hairy Woodpecker Hybrid”. I live in northern Westchester county, NY adjacent to Wards Pound Ridge Reservation, a 4700 acre preserve and I get alot of woodpecker activity at my bird feeders ( 5 different species) today I initially thought I had a pair of hairy woodpeckers on the tube feeder and when I trained the binoculars on them it looked like the female was feeding the male, who was on the opposite side of the feeder from me. However, when it came into view something looked strange and then I realized this bird had the red in the wrong spot. Instead of having it on the back of the head like a male Hairy Woodpecker it had it on the forehead like a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, but as I looked at it closer I realized it wasn’t a Sapsucker as it did not have the large white wing patches and it’s back was not stiped. Instead it’s back between the wings was white. As best as I can describe it would be, a female Sapsucker’s head on the body of a Hairy Woodpecker. This was not the first time this bird was at the feeder ,because a few days ago my wife mentioned that she had seen a strange looking woodpecker that she could not identify. I will try get some photos tomorrow if it returns. Has anybody heard of Hairy x Sapsucker hybrid? Is it common?


I have been studying the reproductive biology of these two sympatric species in eastern Washington for the last 8 years. I have monitored over 70 nests of each species and have wondered if hybrids between the two existed. The bird in the photo sure looks like it has the plumage characteristics of both species and my guess would be it is “probably” a HAWO x WHWO hybrid. But, can we rule out a Black-backed Woodpecker (BBWO) x White-headed Woodpecker hybrid? In my research, the peak nest initiation period for HAWO and WHWO are separated by about 3 weeks, which would make it more difficult for the two to overlap. HAWO and BBWO nesting chronology is much closer. The grayish sides resemble the fine gray barring on the side of a BBWO and black-back could account for the darker back and lack of spotting in the wings. Also, I would expect the white face of a WHWO to wash out the facial pattern of a HAWO…where it would be similar to a BBWO if it were a hybrid BBWO x HAWO. Notice how behind the eye is a black patch siimilar to a BBWO. But, this doesn’t account for the missing yellow on top of the head given this is a male bird. Also, this is probably a 1 year or older bird as a young of the year should have red on top of the head. Very cool photos and wonderfully documented.


Sorry, in my previous post, I meant, “But can we rule out a Black-backed Woodpecker (BBWO) x Hairy Woodpecker hybrid”. Not, BBWO x WHWO.


It’s been a while and I have had a second chance to review this report. I agree with Kimball’s comments and Jeff’s. The main thing that puzzles me beyond all the comments above is the barring on the back. The only Hairies I have seen with this trait are juveniles, and juvenile plumage can be problematic to assess in the field in birds that have dispersed from the natal grounds. I have also seen juvenile Hairies in late summer that have already lost the red crown patch in favor of the nuchal patch. June is awfully early for this to have occurred, however, especially for this relatively high-elevation (approx 6k ft) site.

In my research and experience with these two species, this is indeed the first time I have ever heard of the possibility of this hybrid combination. I recently saw an account of another previously unreported Hairy hybrid possibility, but I can’t dig it out. It was from the east, and was I believe a bird that showed intermediate traits between Downy and Hairy (which itself would be difficult to ascertain!). This may just be semantics, but because it is the first report and because it is a sight record, I would be more comfortable calling it a “possible” rather a “probable” hybrid individual. I will put it in my upcoming woodpecker book as follows:

“A … bird observed in the field in Oregon in 2010 showed intermediate plumage traits between Hairy and White-headed woodpeckers.”

I’m glad Dave and Shawneen were in those woods at the right time. This bird’s aberrant plumage would have certainly gone unnoticed and unreported by many birders. Excellent observation and excellent report.


Good points, Steve. If this were a Black-backed Woodpecker (BBWO) x Hairy Woodpecker (HAWO) hybrid, the barring on the middle of the back could be the result of the black back feathers of a BBWO mixed with the white middle back feathers of a HAWO causing the barred pattern in a hybrid(?). Also, the checkered appearance of the white in the primaries looks earily like the checkered pattern found in a BBWO. That along with the more prominent black in the head pattern and the fine barring on the side evident in some of the pics makes me think this is more “probably” a BBWO x HAWO than a WHWO x HAWO. Although, as I stated previously, that doesn’t explain the lack of yellow in this male birds head…although yellow coloring may not be dominant and we may never know that for sure. The other possibility is that this is simply a Hairy Woodpecker that is partially melanistic accounting for the overall blacker plumage. I guess we will always continue to speculate about this unique bird. Thanks to Dave and Shawneen for documenting this bird!


Interesting photo and very interesting comments. I realize that this is an old post, but it is important to consider phylogenetics in this discussion. Phlyogenetic research leads me to strongly suspect that if this bird is a hybrid, it could only be a hairy/white-headed hybrid.

For a more detailed explanation:
Woodpecker systematics is in need of major reform. At the top of the list needing reform is the genus Picoides which now known to be paraphyletic (Webb and Moore, 2005, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 36: 233-248). Wiebel and Moore (2002a, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 22: 66-75) show that white-headed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, and Strickland’s/Arizona woodpecker (possibly red-cockaded woodpecker) form a clade that appeared in North American before the clade of ‘three-toed’ woodpeckers (black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers). The three-toed woodpeckers (including the black-backed woodpecker) are sister to the Eurasian pygmy woodpeckers, and really only distantly related to white-headed/hairy woodpeckers. In a separate study, Weibel and Moore (2002b, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 22: 247-257) confirmed these results and demonstrated that the closest living relative to white-headed woodpecker are as follows: Strickland’s/Arizona woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, and then red-cockaded woodpecker. Black-backed woodpecker is only distantly related, and definitely not a sister group to the white-headed woodpecker/hairy woodpecker clade.

Although these papers were published 5-10 years ago, the AOU has not changed the genus names of North American Picoides woodpeckers probably because they are too busy trying to correct other, perhaps larger taxonomic errors.

Overall, researchers state that the three-toed woodpeckers (e.g. black-backed, American three-toed, and Eurasian three-toed) should be placed in their own genus (probably the ‘true’ Picoides). Four-toed, ‘pied’ woodpeckers, as they are called, may represent a couple of genera. But at the very least, members of the Eurasian Dendrocopus and the four-toed North American Picoides (including white-headed and hairy woodpeckers) should be merged but placed in a separate genus than the three-toeds.

To summarize: this woodpecker is much more likely a hairy/white-headed hybrid rather than a white-headed/black-back or a hairy/black-back.

Along those lines, phylogenetics suggests that a hybrid hairy/downy is also unlikely since those two species are only distantly related; similarities in plumage are the result of convergent evolution, rather than a sign of relatedness (Weibel and Moore, 2005, Condor 107:797-809). It seems likely that black-backs could only hybridize with other three-toed species (not four-toed woodpeckers), and I’d be interested in whether anyone has heard of genetically confirmed hybrids between three-toed and four-toed woodpeckers.


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