Backyard Birds 101; Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker

Backyard Birds 101; Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker

Jun 11, '20


Article and photos by: Evan Glynn

One area where new birders may need help is when determining an ID between two (or more) species with very similar appearances. One pair of birds where this issue arises is with Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. These two woodpeckers have overlapping ranges, live in similar habitats, and can appear identical to the untrained eye. These two photos were taken minutes apart from the same location. Hairy woodpecker is on the left, Downy on the right.



Unfortunately this comparison isn’t perfect as the Hairy is a female and the Downy is a male (indicated by the red patch on the back of the head – the male Hairy also has a red patch), but still provides a scale comparison and highlights some differences between the two species.

Let’s look at some main differences:

Woodpecker Differences

  1. Overall the Hairy is a larger, more robust bird. Hairy averages around 9.25” in length while the downy is around 6.75”. While size can be difficult to quickly judge in the field, especially with no reference, the Downy appears more sparrow-like in size, while the Hairy is more robin-sized.
  2. The easiest and most reliable field mark here is probably bill size. The Downy has a small bill that is around 1/3 the length of the Downy’s head. The Hairy bill in giant in comparison, and is about as long as its head.
  3. Downy woodpeckers have small black spots on their outer tail feathers. Hairy outer tail feathers are all white. While this is a much more subtle field mark, when perched on feeders it can be seen without much difficulty.

While these two species can live in similar habitats, as larger birds, Hairy woodpeckers generally prefer larger trees in more mature woods, and would be a rarer sighting in an area with limited trees. Downys can be among much smaller trees and more open woodlands.

These two species will also frequently visit suet feeders. Pictured in the photo is a standard single cake suet feeder with Coles Special Suet Blend. This particular feeder has hosted numerous species, including 5 species of woodpecker over the last few weeks.

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