Saturday, February 14, 2015

How to Tell the Difference Between a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker

While the little Downy Woodpeckers are very common at bird feeders, the shier Hairy Woodpeckers will come to feeders as well, and it can often be tricky to tell the difference between the two.

Here is a picture with a Hairy Woodpecker on the left and a Downy Woodpecker on the right:

left: Hairy Woodpecker  right: Downy Woodpecker
The most immediate difference you can see is that Hairy Woodpeckers are much larger than the diminutive Downies.  When I first noticed the Hairy Woodpeckers coming to my feeder, my first thought was, 'Woah, that's a large Downy Woodpecker!'

Hairy Woodpecker with Goldfinches
Apart from their size, the easiest way to identify which is which is to look at their bill.  Hairy Woodpeckers have very long, chisel-shaped bills.  The bills are about as long as their head is wide.

Hairy Woodpecker
The Downy Woodpecker, on the other hand, has a small bill.  It is only about 1/3 of the width of their head.  The Downy's bill also has a more noticeable downy tuft of nasal bristles around the base of it.

Downy Woodpecker
There are also a few subtle coloring differences: 

DOWNYHAIRY
NECK:
more rounded white patch
more uniform band of white
TAIL:
white outer tail feathers barred with black (looks spotted)
usually pure white outer tail feathers (at least in Eastern US)
BREAST:
subtle black mark on breast, if at all
distinctive black mark on breast



One more difference can be found with the male woodpeckers.  The males of both species have a red patch on the back of their head, but if there is a black line running through the middle of it, it is mostly likely a Hairy Woodpecker.

left: Downy Woodpecker  right: Hairy Woodpecker

So think you know the difference between a Downy and a Hairy?
See if you can tell which is which in these pictures... some of them are tricky!

1. 

2. 

3.

4.


Ready for the answers?

Here they are, as well as some of the distinguishing marks in the pictures.

1. Downy - (you can see the small bill)
2. Hairy -  (large bill)
3. Downy -  (large, rounded white patches on back of neck and spotted tail feathers)
4. Hairy -  (the bill looks larger, there is a distinctive black mark extending onto breast, and the band of white at the neck looks like a narrow, uniform stripe as opposed to a rounded patch)

So how did you do?  It's definitely harder when they aren't on a bird feeder, so there's no relative frame of size!

left: Hairy Woodpecker  right: Downy Woodpecker
Don't forget to show the birds some love this weekend and count the birds
for the Great Backyard Bird Count if you can!

27 comments:

  1. Beautiful photos and informative post. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  2. The woodpeckers are some of my favorites. I always have suet out for them and I added a peanut feeder this year. We are lucky to have both hairy and downy and red bellied. One year we had a red headed but haven't seen another one in several years.

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    1. Oh, the Red-headed ones are so beautiful! I had a couple one year at my garden in North Carolina, but I haven't seen any up here yet. I love the Red-bellies too. I see them every once in a while here.

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  3. I envy you Indie. I keep waiting for a woodpecker to visit my garden. They are so beautiful.

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    1. The woodpeckers are my favorite birds! I didn't even mind them waking me up in the morning with their tapping on my gutter on weekends :)

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  4. Great post. I've never seen a picture of downy and hairy woodpeckers together like that. Also I wasn't aware of all those differences between the species. To me the tipoff is always the general size and the beak. Have you noticed that the Great Backyard Bird Count has lumped downy and hairy woodpeckers into one reporting category? I wonder if that is because they are so commonly mistaken for each other.

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    1. So strange that it put them together for you; when I entered in my info today, they had separate categories. Weird!

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  5. I miss these guys! They haven't been at my feeders lately, but they're common visitors here in spring, summer, and fall. This is the time of year when we have the least number of birds overall, so the Great Backyard Bird Count would be more productive for us just about any other month than February. Oh well. It's fun to see any birds anytime. :)

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    1. I only saw the Hairy Woodpeckers here for a couple weeks, and haven't seen them lately, so I wonder if they were just passing through. I certainly wouldn't blame them for moving out of the area to escape all the blizzards we've been getting! That's too bad you don't see too many birds in February. The middle of winter is when we need to see some sign of life out there the most, I think!

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  6. Well, I got three out of four. I should have paid better attention. I had to go back and re-read some of it. Wonderful, informative post. Now I will be able to say which one I see.

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    1. Glad it was helpful! Sometimes it is so tricky to tell which is which, especially if they are in the trees or at a weird angle.

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  7. This is such a perfect post, my only regret is that I didn't have it a few years ago when we thought our downy woodpeckers, were baby Red headed woodpeckers...lol. I just couldn't find any pertinent information anywhere on them, so we kept thinking they were babies...

    Love the shots that you got!

    Jen

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    1. Those Downies really do look like little baby woodpeckers, don't they?! They are so cute.

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  8. Indie what a great post....both these woodpeckers visited this weekend although the Downy are more numerous.

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    1. I've had lots of Downies in both places I've lived and had bird feeders. I haven't seen the Hairies nearly as often, so it's quite an event when they come :)

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  9. Great post... I have both also... Michelle

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    1. Thanks! Sometimes it still takes me a bit to tell which is which, they look so much alike.

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  10. You did a nice post showing the differences Indie. I only get the Downy at my feeder since they raise families behind my garage, but see the Hairy in the woods often. They are so cute and your photos are wonderful. I like the graphics too.

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    1. I wonder why they don't come to the feeder at all? I know they are shier, and you have a lot of birds at your feeders - maybe it's too many other birds for them :)

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  11. After reading this, now I'm wondering if what I thought I was seeing wasn't really a Downy woodpecker at all, but a Hairy Woodpecker! Great tips for telling the difference, Indie--you make it very easy to see the difference between the two. Before, I would just go by the size, which isn't that reliable if you only see one bird at a time. I'm hoping more birds come to the feeders today--my count was pretty small yesterday.

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    1. I hope you got more for your count! With all the blizzards we've been having, we've had a good number at the feeders. I worry about them with the cold and all the snow, though.

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  12. Wow! Wonderful photos and interesting info – I must admit I am pretty green when it comes to birds, apart from a few ones. I am not sure I have ever seen a woodpecker up-close before, lucky you having them in the garden!

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    1. I spent one winter taking photos of birds and figuring out what they were. It took me awhile, but now I've gotten quite into it!

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  13. Nice job explaining the difference, Indie. And I learned something -- didn't know about the black line through the red on the hairy woodpecker. I enjoyed participating in the GBBC very much. P. x

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    1. I learned about that too, while looking up differences for the blog post! Usually I can tell from the size or by looking at the beak, but sometimes with those strange angles, it's hard to tell and good to have a few other identifying marks!

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  14. Yes, I got it, (due to your earlier descriptions) The one which visits our garden is the (Great spotted woodpecker)

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