Downy or Hairy? How to Tell Who's Who!

Thursday, December 14, 2023
A conundrum that most birders are faced with early on in their birdwatching journey: is it a Downy Woodpecker, or a Hairy? These two common feeder visitors can be difficult to differentiate, particularly while flitting from feeder to tree in true woodpecker fashion. Here are some tips to keep in mind when faced with this identification challenge.

Left: Female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) - Right: Female Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)
* Males in both species have a distinct red cap
Bill Size
Left: Female Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)
Right: Female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
One of the easiest ways to tell these two look-alikes apart, is to examine the bill size. Is it petite in comparison to the head? Or is it long and prominent? Downy Woodpeckers have a short and dainty bill, whereas a Hairy's bill is robust & chisel-like. A Hairy Woodpecker's bill is roughly as long as it's head, whereas a Downy's is much shorter. Have a look at the photo above for side-by-side comparison.

Overall Body Size
Simply put: Downys are small, Hairys are big. Males and females are virtually the same size in both species, with the males having a red bar or cap on their head. The difference in body size between the two species is quite obvious when they are side-by-side, but when viewing a lone bird (especially at a distance) it can be difficult to make a judgement. Some size references to keep in mind; Downy Woodpeckers are about the length of a Song Sparrow, and Hairys are close in length to a Red-winged Blackbird.

While their calls are similar, there is some minor variation in pitch. The Downy Woodpecker's pitch descends at the end of their call, whereas the Hairy's is slightly deeper overall & monotone throughout. I also find that Hairys usually announce their visit by calling loudly just before landing on a bird feeder. Click below for links to hear each bird's call.

Left: Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
Right: Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

Tail Feathers
The outer tail feathers of a Downy Woodpecker are typically white and barred or spotted with black, whereas with Hairy Woodpeckers the feathers are pure white (see image to the right). This identification feature is a tougher one to rely on as it depends on the angle you're viewing the bird from. From above the pattern of the Downy's feathers is less noticeable than from a side or lower angle.

Attracting Woodpeckers to Your Yard
Woodpeckers of all varieties are some of the most entertaining visitors you can have in your yard and at your feeders. Some highly desirable foods that you can offer to attract woodpeckers include shelled peanuts, live mealworms, WBU Bark Butter & Bark Butter Bits, and our newest line of suet SuperSuet which is a blend of high quality beef fat, mealworms, tree nuts, and calcium. Other woodpecker species you may see at your feeders include Red-bellied and Pileated

Happy Trails!

- Shayna

No comments:

Post a Comment