Some birds look so similar in the wild, it’s hard to notice their small, obscure differences. An example of two species that fall into this category are the downy vs hairy woodpecker.
In fact, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are probably one of the most common cases of this. That’s why we’re going to compare the downy and hairy woodpeckers, and discuss the key characteristics that make them different.
This article will give you pointers of what to look and listen for when faced with an ID opportunity, as well as a little bit of life history about each bird.
Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker
Although they have striking physical similarities—white bellies and back stripe, checkered wings, striped heads—these two woodpeckers are actually more closely related to other woodpeckers than each other. They aren’t even in the same Genus.
This mirror image of the two is likely the product of convergent evolution which causes unrelated species to look alike. Both species can be aggressive, and although Downy’s are smaller, they often win in fights with birds bigger than themselves. Is it possible the other birds mistake them for the larger Hairy and are hesitant? Perhaps! It’s a plausible reason why looking alike would benefit the Downy.
But since they aren’t the same bird, how do we actually tell them apart?
Length: 5.5 – 6.7 in
Weight: 0.7 – 1.0 oz
Wingspan: 9.8 – 11.8 in
This little woodpecker was first recorded in Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands which was published in 1729-1732. He called it the “Downy”, referring to its soft white feathers on the stripe of the lower back.
Downy’s are found in open deciduous woodlands and along brushy or weedy edges. They also spend time in more suburban areas, including parks, gardens, and orchards. In the West they are restricted to riparian habitats.
These birds are excellent at pest control with their mostly insectivorous diets. They feed on corn earworms, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. To round out their meals they’ll also eat grains, acorns, and berries. They like to visit bird feeders to much on suet and sunflower seeds, too.
Downy’s are found year-round in most of the U.S., aside from the Southwest desert areas. Their range extends into the majority of Canada and into Alaska.
These checkered black and white birds have a white stripe down their backs and boldly stripes faces. Their bellies are all white (or buffy, depending on the region.) Outer tail feathers have black barring. Males have a red patch on the back of the head.
Length: 7.1 – 10.2 in
Weight: 1.4 – 3.4 oz
Wingspan: 13.0 – 16.1 in
As with the Downy, the Hairy was recorded by Mark Catesby in the same book. Also like the Downy, this bird was named by the feathers of the white stripe running down its back. They are long, and thread-like.
These birds like mature deciduous woodlands and coniferous forests with decent sized trees. They usually spend time in dense woodlands, but can occur in parks and suburbs, though not as frequently as the Downy. They are also found in freshly burned forests and around beaver ponds.
Hairy’s love larvae of wood-boring and bark beetles, ants, and moth pupae in their cocoons. They will also make meals of caterpillars, bees, wasps, spiders, and millipedes, though not as frequently as it’s favorites mentioned before. They will flock in large numbers when beetle infestations occur. This explains their prevalence in burned forests as the beetles become numerous here.
Year round residents in most of the U.S. except for a bulk of Texas, Southern California, and a few splotches in the west. They are also found year-round in most of Canada and into Alaska.
A white belly and white stripe down the back stand out against their black and white checkered wings. They have a striped face and long bills, with the males having a characteristic red patch on the back of the head.
8 differences between Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers
1. Hairy’s have longer bills
A Hairy’s bill is about the same length as its head, whereas a Downy’s is not even half the length of its head. This is one of the most noticeable differences.
2. Hairy’s are larger overall
On average, a Hairy is roughly 3 inches larger than a Downy. A simple reference is to compare them to the sizes of a robin (Hairy) and a house sparrow (Downy).
3. Downy’s have a softer voice
Downy’s voices are higher and softer and dip down in tone at the end. Hairy’s are louder, more shrill and keep the same pitch.
4. Downy’s have a slower drum
Downy’s produce 17 drums per second, each lasting roughly 0.8-1.5 seconds. Hairy’s squeeze in 25 drums per second, which doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but is very noticeable.
5. Downy’s have bars on the outer tail feathers
This is mostly noticed when in flight, but may also be seen when the tail feathers are fanned out as the woodpeckers balance on a feeder. The outer white tail feathers have black barring/spotting on Downy woodpeckers, while Hairy’s are pure white with no markings.
6. Hairy’s white eyebrow stripe does not connect on the back of the head
Both birds have white eyebrow stripes that reach out to the back of the head. On females where there is no red patch, the white stripes will not meet on a Hairy woodpecker but will go all the way across (no gap) on a Downy. Similarly for males with the red patch, male Hairy’s often have a black dividing stripe in the center of the red patch while Downy’s is solid red.
7. Hairy’s have faint “backpack straps”
Hairy’s have black feathers that extend down from the shoulder. This is sometimes referred to as a “comma” marking or a “backpack strap”. For some Hairy’s this is not very noticeable, but it is obvious on many of them and can be a good indicator. Downy’s lack this black stripe.
8. Downy’s have fluffier nasal tufts
The nasal tufts on a Downy (at the top of the beak) are much more distinctive and fluffy when compared to the tufts on a Hairy.
Now that we’ve talked about all the things that make them different, you’ll be better equipped to identify them in the field!
Don’t get discouraged, though, as these are some of the most difficult species to tell apart, even by experts!