Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Alike yet Different

A reader writes:

There are two woodpeckers at my bird feeder that look alike. The smaller one is plain black and white. The bigger one has red on the back of its head. Are they Downy Woodpeckers, or are they Hairy Woodpeckers?
— John I., PA

Diane's reply:

You have one of each! The small one with no red on it is a female Downy Woodpecker. The large one with red on the back of the head is a male Hairy Woodpecker.

You're not the first person to be perplexed by Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The two species have the same color scheme. The most dramatic difference is their sizes. A Hairy Woodpecker is about 1/3 longer than a Downy and weighs almost 3 times as much!

So if you see both species side by side, there's no problem. However, although the Hairy is much bigger than the Downy, it is hard to see that if you have only one in view. It is notoriously difficult to judge the size when no other birds are around for comparison.

OK, what if there's only one?

If you a see bird all by itself, you need something besides size to go by. 

The head color is no help, either, because in each species, the male has red on the head, and the female does not.

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Look at the bill

When in doubt, take a critical look at the woodpecker's head.

Downy Woodpecker ~ The Downy's bill is tiny in proportion to the head. It looks dainty. Sometimes it only slightly protrudes beyond a tuft of prominent loose, fluffy feathers at its base that may make the bill look like just a little point.

Also, the Downy's bill is rather more conical in shape than that of the Hairy. And it's a little wider at the base compared to the length of the bill.

Hairy Woodpecker ~ The Hairy's bill looks formidable. It is strong, long, and slender. More to the point, it's large in proportion to the head.

A thought experiment

Try this. Mentally turn the bill around, so that it points toward the back of the bird's head. How far across the head does it appear to extend?

Downy's bill: half as long as head is wide.
Hairy's bill
: almost as long as head is wide.

Look at the tail

Another clue is the white outer tail feathers. On the Hairy Woodpecker, the outer feathers are pure white. On the Downy, there are usually a few small black or gray spots along the sides of the white outer tail feathers.

Their voices

Their two species have different calls to distinguish them, also. The rattling call of the Hairy Woodpecker is mostly on the same pitch. But the Downy's call drops down (for Downy) in pitch.

Male and female

In each species, the male and female are about the same size. If you see a big difference between the size of two of these black-and-white woodpeckers, you'll know you're looking at a Downy and a Hairy, not male and female of just one species. A closer look at the bill and the tail will help you determine which it is.