Of all the species of woodpeckers, no two are so widespread yet so challenging to identify as downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers. While there are some subtle differences that can help birders determine which bird is which, the best way to be certain of the identification is through extensive practice and careful scrutiny of these very similar birds.
When observing these black and white woodpeckers, consider the following characteristics to tell which is a downy and which is a hairy.
- Size: The bird’s size is the easiest and most obvious way to determine its species. Downy woodpeckers are small, only about 6-7 inches in length, while hairy woodpeckers are larger, usually 9-11 inches in length. While judging a bird’s size in the field can be difficult, it is useful to compare the bird’s length to nearby objects that can be measured, such as the size of a feeder or the width of a tree branch.
- Bill: These bird species have vastly different bill lengths. The downy woodpecker’s bill is a small nub, less than half the length of its head, and may seem even smaller if the nasal bristles are fluffed. The hairy woodpecker’s bill, on the other hand, is just as long as its head and is proportionally thicker and more stout and dagger-like in appearance.
- Markings: While these birds are almost identical in plumage, there are two subtle differences that can be detected. First, the downy woodpecker’s white outer tail feathers show some black barring or spotting, while the hairy woodpecker’s outer tail feathers are plain. Second, downy woodpeckers have a plain shoulder, while a black spur of color juts onto hairy woodpeckers’ shoulders toward the breast. Neither of these markings is very prominent and there can be geographic variations, but if seen distinctly, they can help identify the bird’s species.
- Range: Both these woodpecker species have extensive ranges covering most of North America. The hairy woodpecker’s range is slightly greater, however, and they can be found in Mexico as well, while downy woodpeckers are absent in the Southwest and Mexico.
- Habitat: Both birds can be found in deciduous, pine, and hardwood forests. Downy woodpeckers are 10 times more likely to appear in suburban areas and backyards, whereas hairy woodpeckers are much more reclusive. Downy woodpeckers are also more likely to be found on the fringes of agricultural areas, where they will feed on weed stalks. Hairy woodpeckers cannot feed on such weak stems, which would bend under the birds' weight.
- Behavior: Downy woodpeckers are bolder and more curious birds, despite their diminutive size, and they will often respond to pishing from observant birders. Downy woodpeckers will travel in mixed flocks with other small birds such as chickadees and titmice, and they frequently feed on thin branches, younger trees, and weed stalks. Hairy woodpeckers are shier and much more apt to fly away when disturbed, and they prefer feeding on thicker branches and tree trunks.
- Cavities: Both downy and hairy woodpeckers are cavity-nesting birds, and if you are fortunate to see a nesting hole it can be a clue toward the bird’s identity. Downy woodpeckers excavate smaller, round cavities while hairy woodpeckers have larger, more oval-shaped cavities.
- Voice: Birding by ear can be a challenge for any birder, but learning to distinguish similar species by their calls can help with tricky identifications. Downy woodpeckers have a softer, less demanding call that descends in pitch at the end, while hairy woodpeckers have a louder, stronger call that stays on one pitch. Hairy woodpeckers also have a faster drumming beat.
Backyard Woodpecker Identification Tips
Woodpeckers are not always frequent backyard guests, unless you are fortunate enough to live in a forested area or an area with a great deal of mature landscaping. When they do appear, however, these birds can be challenging to identify, not only because of the similarities between downy and hairy species but also because they’re unfamiliar. When you see one of these woodpeckers, focus on the bird’s size, bill length, and behavior as the easiest and most definitive identification characteristics. At the same time, bear in mind that with such similar birds there can always be some overlap and uncertainty, making it important to compare several features. With practice and patience, you will soon be able to clearly identify your downy and hairy woodpeckers.
Downy and Hairy Woodpecker Quick Reference
|Characteristic||Downy Woodpecker||Hairy Woodpecker|
|Bill||Short sub, smaller than head||Large dagger, same length as head|
|Tail||White outer feathers With spots/barring||Plain white outer feathers|
|Shoulder||White, plain||White with thin black spur|
|Range||Absent in southwest and Mexico||All of North America|
|Habitat||Forests and fringes, much more likely in yards||Deeper mature forests|
|Behavior||Curious, will travel in mixed flocks||Timid, solitary|
|Cavity Size||Small, round entrance||Larger, oval entrance|
|Voice||Soft, descending pitch||Louder, stronger calls|