Wonder + Wildness

Chasing wonder on a science guided journey through the natural world in search of meaning, connections, and the courage to hope

Hairy & Downy Woodpeckers: Spot the Difference

These two woodpeckers are notorious for their visual similarity. But there are some key differences that can tip you off!

Birding is one of the fastest-growing forms of outdoor recreation with over 46 million Americans counting themselves as a “birder”. It’s a hobby for everyone, and there’s no one way to do it—in a group, alone, in your backyard, at a local park, or even outside of an urban skyscraper. There is one thing that all birders, whether they’re beginners or veterans, can tell you for certain: it’s definitely not always easy. There are over 10,000 species of bird in the world. Many look incredibly similar. Sometimes knowing your habitats and ranges are all that you need to tell them apart for sure. But what if they share the same habitat? What if they are side by side? Two such birds can be found here in MN—and in much of the US, for that matter: the Hairy and Downy Woodpecker. Here’s how to tell them apart.

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Super similar, but there are some key differences

Looking at my drawing above, the difference may seem obvious—at least if you already know which is which. Perhaps it is just easier to tell that they don’t exactly look the same. Part of that is intentional on my part. I always prefer drawings for learning my bird ID and exclusively use field guides with illustrations. They better capture distinctive traits and markings which makes it easier to fixate on those as defining characteristics and call back to when you’re out in the field. When looking at these two birds side by side in real life, it isn’t as easy. Here’s an example:

See what I mean? Left is a Hairy. That’s Downy on the right. (At least according to the captions on the original photos)

Downy Woodpecker

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Downy Woodpecker by Devon Bowker

The Downy Woodpecker is smaller than the Hairy, for starters. Though, unless you are looking at them side by side, that tidbit doesn’t help a whole lot. In general, Downy’s are a max of about 6 inches in length. Bigger than that? Probably a Hairy.

Additionally, their outer white tail feathers tend to have small black bars. But perhaps the biggest way to tell the difference is the length of the beak. In general, the length of a Downy’s beak will be much shorter than the length of their head. If none of those get you certain enough, it is helpful to know that Downy’s are much more common—especially in suburbia.

Now the Hairy:

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Hairy Woodpecker by Devon Bowker

You’ll notice this section will be substantially shorter. That’s because if any of the previously described traits don’t match what you see, it is probably a Hairy. Hairy’s are easily above 6 inches in length (about Robin sized) on average, nearing almost 10 inches at their max. Then there is the beak. A Hairy’s beak is always going to be equal to or longer than the length of their head.

It is important to note, too, that marking between males, females, and juveniles vary as well. For example, the red back of the head isn’t always present!

Of course, then there are the calls:

Here is the call and drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker

And here is the call and drumming of a Downy.

Hear a difference?

Now let’s test your newfound skill. Leave your guess in the comments! Which is which?

Want to learn some more birding tips? Check out Birding by Smartphone

and be sure to check out the Spot the Difference Stickers!

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