Spot the Difference: Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

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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Hairy Woodpecker (left) side-by-side with a Downy Woodpecker (right)

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 a downy on the right.

(At least according to the captions on the original photos)

First up, the Downy:

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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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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.

Here a difference?

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


Hoary Puccoon

This #WildflowerWednesday, we take a closer look at one of my personal favorite of the early spring and summer wildflowers. The Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), is a perennial herb native to North America which blooms between April and May. They grow throughout much of the Midwest and eastern US, reaching heights of up to 18 inches—though a shorter stature is more common.

The flowers grow on single stalks in the axils of 1 to 3 branching points at the top of the stem. The orange-golden flowers are roughly ½ inch wide with 5 rounded petals.

The common name “hoary puccoon”, like many common names, is both descriptive in nature and cryptic. By that, I mean, many common names are simply combinations of various adjectives, yet they are adjectives whose meanings are not commonly known. In this case, “hoary” references the short, white fuzz on the plant, as hoary also means “white or grey with age (think hoarfrost). You can see this fuzz in the picture below. The word “puccoon” comes from a Native American word simply defined as “a plant that yields a pigment”.

The taproot of this plant makes a reddish purple juice, similar to that of beets, and Native Americans used to chew it with their gum to dye it red. Aside from its use as a dye, it was also used to treat asthma.

This plant prefers sandy soil and prairie, though it may grow in open woods and edges, as well.

In the picture above, you can see ants meandering around the plant. It certainly is popular with many pollinators, typically bees and butterflies, as well as some beetles. As for the ants, I cannot say with any certainty what they are doing. Perhaps they are serving some purpose; perhaps they are just chilling.

Sunday Fish Sketch| The Common Sea Dragon

This #SundayFishSketch comes from Ichthyologist, Rene Martin. Visit her shop on InPrint to see more of her artwork or to order prints!

Meet the Common Sea Dragon

Phyllopteryx taeniolatus

While it may be a dragon by name, the Common Sea Dragon is no more a dragon than a sea horse is a horse. One, it would be impractical to breathe fire under the ocean—on second thought, perhaps they do and we just never see it because the mighty sea extinguished the flame. 🤔

Perhaps the most distinguishable traits other than its oddly contorted body and nose that grows with each lie they tell (naughty little creatures), are their leafy-like appendages which resemble kelp, and their coloration—red, pink bodies with yellow and purple markings. It is strange to me to spend so many generations being naturally selected for leafy appendages to help with camouflage, but to, at the same time, come out looking like a PokĂ©mon clown. But, who am I to judge?

It’s range is limited to down under the land down under. You might think that works like a double negative. It does not. Instead it lives in the coastal waters at depths of up to 160 feet between Port Stephen of New South Wales, Australia on the western side, to Gerladton on the eastern side, and down around Tasmania. As you may have guessed, they aren’t just swimming about. What good would their camouflage be then? It’d be like wearing full hunting camouflage and face paint to blend in at Target. Instead, they spend the majority of their time in rocky reefs and sea grass meadows.

Looking at the Common Dragon Fish, it’s a wonder they can move at all. In fact, they hardly can—at least not in a way that gives you solace enough to not suspect they aren’t just drones put in place by the Australian government. They mostly drift, saying “Don’t look at me. I’m just a swaying piece of kelp, dressed as a clown.” They have a prehensile tail like a possum which they use to clasp onto anchors and, you guessed it, drift a lil bit.

As miraculous as it is, they do eat things—mostly zooplankton and super tiny crustaceans by sucking them up in their tube faces like a mini-vacuum with a whole Dragon Fish attaches to the other end.

When you look across the animal kingdom, there is one thing that you are more often that not guaranteed to see—dead beat dads. However, the male Common Sea Dragon is anything but! The female will lay nearly 120 eggs onto a patch on the males tail. The male, then does the fertilizing and carries them around until they hatch, at which point they are entirely self-sufficient. So, I guess the dad doesn’t really do that much, either…

Fossil Friday| Introducing Evolution with the Archaeopteryx

In celebration of #FossilFriday, I wanted to share an educational resource: a lesson I used during student teaching to introduce a unit on evolution.

This lesson can be modified for middle school level and was written in accordance to MN state standards which very closely mirror NGSS, however, I structured this lesson for the high school level and with a class size of 25. If you teach a larger class, your “dig site” may need to be larger, or you may need additional sites.  Here’s what I did.

Call me theatrical, but as students entered class, they entered to see me dressed as Dr Alan Grant of Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 3 (Sam Niell’s character), satchel around my shoulder and brushes in hand next to our dig site. The dig site was an overturned beanbag toss board lined with a blue nylon tarp and filled with sawdust as a sand substitute. Buried within were fossils and skeletons–some real; some fake. Among the real specimens were a trilobite, a megaladon tooth, a fish fossil from the Green River Valley, and a few various bones. Among the artificial were a triceratops skull, a chameleon skeleton, and the centerpiece: a borrowed replica of the famous “first-wing”—the Archaeopteryx.

The task: use the tools of a paleontologist to search the site, uncover the largest fossil (unidentified at the time), and observe its traits. Once uncovered, I posed a simple question: lizard or bird? Students quickly picked sides, choosing various leads, and spending the remainder of the hour researching the characteristics traits of their pick and comparing them with the observable traits of the specimen at question.

I borrowed the Archaeopteryx fossil replica from the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota for a very small fee. I recommend contacting local museums and universities. Some universities may even be able to 3D print such a replica for you!

The debate concluded with a realization by the students that the specimen being observed was neither lizard nor bird, but something else. This, still without mentioning the concept of evolution, led into a discussion of transitional organisms, the context of its original discovery, and how such a creature may have existed. Ultimately, this activity made for a classroom environment much more open minded to the ideas put forth by evolutionary theory than may have otherwise been the case. There was evidence, uncovered by their own brushes, there for their interpretation.

The engagement was through the roof, too! My students left class in heated debate—far more than I had seen from them before—which lured into the next days advisory period and into the beginning of their class time. I don’t know about you, but I count that as a win!

Over the next few #FossilFriday’s, I will be sharing more resources—all of which were used following this lesson. Those will include a lesson on what we know about the “Bad Weekend” which saw the end of non-avian dinosaurs (and how we know what we know), how we date rocks and fossils, and how we know things such as what colors dinosaurs were, what they ate, how they sounded, etc. They will also include consequential fossils found by Charles Darwin and how they served as evidence for decent with modification.

Women in Science| Meet Mary Anning, Fossil Hunter, and the 11-year Old Fighting for Her Recognition

Yesterday, May 21, was the 220th anniversary of Mary Anning’s birth. She is not a household name, by any means—though she is believed to be the inspiration behind the well-known tongue-twister “she sells sea shells by the sea shore”.

However, it wasn’t shells she was selling, but fossils of long extinct creatures of a bygone era. She was ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’. Though, the sad truth is much of the world never knew, and still does not.

220 years after Mary Annings birth, a young girl from the very town where Mary lived her entire life is fighting to rectify a historical injustice in recognizing Anning in bronze—a fitting honor for a woman who spent her life uncovering creatures lost to time.


open-door-internet-limited-3142770111-year old Evie, has spurred the Mary Anning Rocks campaign to erect a statue of Anning at Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast. A letter to the city council was well-received, and their support given. Sculptor Hazel Reeves has been commissioned, support from the likes of David Attenborough has poured in, and to bring further spotlight to the cause, filming began recently in Lyme Regis on a biopic, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, about the life of Anning. The Mary Anning Rocks campaign now needs to raise the funds to make this dream a reality.


Golden Cap from Charmouth beach
The Jurassic Coast of Dorset

The Life of Mary Anning

The cliffs at Lyme Regis have long been a known hot-spot for fossils from the Jurassic File:LaNature1874-132-AmmoniteEtPommeDePinFossile.pngsea. This area of Dorset in the United Kingdom is, in fact, now called the Jurassic Coast. Annings father, Richard, was a cabinet maker and fossil hunter, died of tuberculosis when Mary, herself, was 11-years old. Before his passing, however, he and the family worked together to hunt fossils in the nearby cliffs and capitalize on what would prove to be a lucrative opportunity. With a table set-up outside their home, the Anning’s supported themselves by selling fossils of ammonites and other various fossils to tourist and passersby.

The family, consisting now of just Mary, her brother Joseph, and her mother—her 8 or so other siblings died during childhood or infancy—was poor and left without a provider. However, Richard’s skill and affinity for fossil hunting proved to be salvation for the Anning’s who carried on the hunts.

drawing of side view of a long thin skull with needle like teeth and a large eye socket

The following year, at just 12 years old, she made her first big find. Her brother Joseph had dug up a 4-foot long skull. A few months later, Mary returned to the site and began the painstakingly slow process of uncovering the rest of the body. It was an Ichthyosaur—the first to be discovered. The name, Ichthyosaurus, essentially means fish lizard, but the creature was neither of those things. It was a genus of large marine reptiles of the late Triassic and early Jurassic.

In 1823, she discovered a Plesiosaur. Georges Cuvier, whose extinction theory was gaining significant academic ground and who’s often considered the ‘father of paleontology’, examined the finding and declared it a hoax. He later admitted he was incorrect in his…assertions.

In short time, Anning had defined herself as an eagle-eyed anatomist. When she found something amazing, she sold it. Soon, she was carrying the family business, whilst making brilliant discoveries which would form the basis of many museum collections.

Despite her many discoveries and her undeniable contributions, she received virtually no recognition in her time. In part, this was due to her work being that of the ‘field’ and not of ‘theory’ which was, and often still is, a bias held in academia that prevents those who do much of the work from receiving their due credit. In part, this was due to her and her families low socioeconomic status. In part, it was due to Mary Anning being who she was—a woman doing the work of a ‘gentleman’.

The following is an excerpt from the Mary Anning Rocks website:

“The influential Geological Society of London did not allow women to join as members, or even allow them to attend meetings or lectures as guests. Even though it was very clear Mary knew more about the fossilized remains she discovered and the geology of Lyme Regis than any of the wealthy clients she collected for, it was always the male geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found, frequently neglecting to even make reference to her name.

Fossils that she discovered which are displayed in museums all around the world, still show the names of the wealthy, educated men that bought them from her. Her work was plagiarized then and still continues to be to this today.”

Even now, representation of women and people of color in science is more often absent than not. The sciences, and especially those geological, still see low rates of PhD earnings by women and people of color and low rates of authorship. These low rates of nothing to do with natural ability, but everything to do with access, opportunity, and institutional biases which urgently need to be broken down.

It would be impossible to list off every discovery made by Anning, or the thousands of contributions to science she made—at least not in this format. It would be even more impossible to define her legacy. Her life, work, and story have inspired many since her death in 1847. Now, with the help of everyday people, like young Evie of Lyme Regis, and the scientist whose own work was inspired by or built upon the discoveries of Mary Anning herself, more can come to know who she was and the spectacular things which she uncovered.

That being said, there are many who have looked this impossible task in the eye and have accepted the challenge. I, myself, only learned about Mary Anning recently while scrolling through instagram and coming across wonderful people and scientists like Amy Atwater (@mary_annings_revenge), paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies (@museum_of_rockies) in Bozeman, Montana, whose dedication to sharing Annings story should be an inspiration to us all.

If you would like to support Mary Anning Rocks, you can do so by visiting I strongly encourage you to pledge your support and purchase one of their stellar t-shirts. Friends, family, and strangers alike will want to know just who this Mary Anning is, and now you can tell them.