Woodpeckers can be a sincere delight to see or hear around some suburban neighborhoods. They are undoubtedly beautiful birds, but they are also a highly beneficial component of the overall health of the forest and wildlife around them.
Even for those wildlife lovers who often contact Woodpeckers, it can still be hard to tell the difference between the two species. The Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker may look and behave very similarly, but they are ultimately two different types of birds.
There are a few key differences between the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker that will be helpful when it comes to identifying the birds. This includes visible differences like size, the color of their tail feathers, and audible differences. Even the birds’ location can be a tip as to what kind of Woodpecker it is.
Read on in this identification guide to discover the traits of the Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker that distinguish them from other birds and one another.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Appearance
When it comes to identifying a Woodpecker as either a Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker, all it takes is a good look at the bird.
While the appearance of these forest-dwelling birds may not seem all that different at first glance, there are visible nuances to their plumage, body size, and beak structure that will allow birdwatchers to tell them apart from each other easily.
Be aware that sorting two Woodpeckers that look so similar will often take practice. Begin by looking at the Woodpeckers next to each other to note the differences, even if just in photos. Then, move on by identifying them individually.
Below, find some of the critical differences in the appearance of the two types of Woodpeckers.
One of the most accessible ways of differentiating a Hairy Woodpecker from a Downy Woodpecker is by looking closely at the bird’s beak or its bill. This is often the first course of action for birdwatchers who spot a Woodpecker and need a quick way to identify it.
In short, a Downy Woodpecker has a much smaller and stubbier beak than a Hairy Woodpecker.
A Downy Woodpecker’s beak tends to be short and stubby. The bill will never reach a length that is longer than half of its head. The structure of their beak will also appear to be thinner, and its end will not be as sharp.
Meanwhile, a Hairy Woodpecker will have a long, dagger-like beak roughly the same length as its head. Besides being long and sharp, a Hairy Woodpecker’s beak will be considerably thicker and more robust.
The size of the bird is a dead giveaway as to whether it is a Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker. Of course, the size of the bird can often be hard to see with the naked eye.
The difference is noticeable when a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker are sitting next. There is roughly a three-inch difference in size between the two birds.
The Hairy Woodpecker is much larger, clocking in around nine to eleven inches in length. On the other hand, the Downy Woodpecker is about six and a half inches in length.
This difference in the two Woodpeckers’ body sizes is not always easy to notice. Unless someone is approaching the bird with a measuring stick or the two breeds are perched directly next to each other, which is not so likely, it can be hard to gauge their size.
An experienced nature-lover will be able to use the foliage around them to note the bird’s size concerning leaves, trees, and branches.
Otherwise, looking at the Woodpeckers’ bill or plumage is an easier option.
The feathers on Downy Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers can look very similar in color, but there are a few visible differences between the two birds.
Both Woodpeckers have primarily black and white plumage, with a tiny bit of red on the males. To determine the type of Woodpecker, though, take a closer look at the tail feathers in particular.
Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have white outer tail feathers that complement their black central tail feathers. Downy Woodpeckers, however, have one slight difference with their outer tail feathers. Their white outer tail feathers tend to have black markings on them. These markings can look like spots or lines.
The color markings on the rest of their plumage can be pretty unreliable. For identification purposes, it is easiest to stick to the tail feathers.
For male Woodpeckers, in particular, there is a crucial difference between the heads of Downy Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers.
There is a notable difference in the head shapes for plenty of similar bird species. This is not the case, however, for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. Instead, a red patch on the back of their heads will give curious birdwatchers insight into which sort of Woodpecker they are.
A male Downy Woodpecker will have a solid red patch spanning the back of its head. A black line down the center of the head will separate the red patch into two smaller red patches. However, the red patch on the male Hairy Woodpecker will not be solid.
This method of identifying the type of Woodpecker is useful when looking at the bird from behind when its beak is not visible. It is also a useful method for determining the birds’ gender. The red patch will only be visible on males.
Baby Woodpeckers can be a little bit more challenging to identify than adults. Their physical characteristics, such as plumage and beaks, have not yet fully developed. Of course, their body sizes all tend to be the same size at such a young age.
Overall, the coloring of baby Woodpeckers is an unreliable indicator of whether they are Downy or Hairy. Their markings tend to be scattered and confusing, as they will change as the bird gets older. Baby males may have a red spot on the top of their heads rather than on the back. In some babies, this spot may start yellow.
So, the best way to identify a baby Woodpecker is to simply wait for its parents to return to the cavity to feed them.
Checking the parents for the characteristics of either a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker is a much more effective way to figure out the species of the baby birds than looking at the babies’ undeveloped features.
Waiting for the birds’ parents to come back requires patience, but it is the best course of action to determine the type of Woodpecker.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Habitat
The habitats of the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker differ slightly. They are both forest-dwelling birds, but Downy Woodpeckers tend to enter human suburbs more often than Hairy Woodpeckers.
The Woodpeckers that so many people see in their yards or local parks will almost always be Downy Woodpeckers. Hairy Woodpeckers do not spend much time venturing away from the woods.
Hairy Woodpeckers prefer to be in the deep woods rather than the fringes of forests, as Downy Woodpeckers prefer. Hairy Woodpeckers do well in areas with heavy foliage and large trees, while Downy Woodpeckers are perfectly content in the small trees of a local park.
Odds are, the bird drumming away at all of the neighborhood oak trees is a Downy Woodpecker, while the fellow fluttering from branch to branch in a mature forest is more likely to be a Hairy Woodpecker.
As for where the birds like to settle on the map, Hairy Woodpeckers have a range that covers the entirety of North America. Downy Woodpeckers, however, do not live in the Southwest or Mexico.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Nests
Both Downy and Hairy woodpeckers nest in cavities. They create a small hole in the tree’s sapwood and carve out a dent in the heartwood. This does not harm the tree.
The size and shape of the cavity differ between the two birds. Downy Woodpeckers tend to create a smaller hole to enter their cavity. Their holes are often more round in shape. Hairy Woodpeckers have cavities with larger entrances.
This difference in size and shape of the Woodpeckers’ cavities likely has to do with the different birds’ body size and beak shape. Since Downy Woodpeckers are smaller, they can fit into a smaller cavity. The strength and sharpness of a Hairy Woodpeckers’ beak allow them to carve out a larger and more precise cavity.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Sounds
Listening to a Woodpecker’s call can also help determine whether it is a Downy or a Hairy Woodpecker.
Of course, listening to a bird’s call to determine its breed can be difficult. However, those who know what to listen for will easily differentiate between the call of a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy.
Downy Woodpeckers have a much softer call that descends in its pitch towards the end. On the other hand, Hairy Woodpeckers have a much louder, stronger, and more demanding call. They will also maintain their pitch through the entirety of the call.
In particular, when birding by ear with Woodpeckers, there is another way to differentiate between the breeds.
Listening to the speed at which they drum, or peck at the trees will indicate the type of bird they are. Hairy Woodpeckers have a much faster drum than Downy Woodpeckers.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Behavior
Despite their similarities, the two types of Woodpeckers have very different behaviors.
Downy Woodpeckers tend to be bolder and more social. This is part of the reason that they feel comfortable in suburban areas or in parks. Being around the human population does not bother them. They also tend to interact more with bird watchers.
Downy Woodpeckers will also flock with other birds. This is not the case, though, for Hairy Woodpeckers.
Hairy Woodpeckers are much more timid animals. These birds prefer to be solitary and do not even prefer to interact with members of the same species. They rarely flock with other birds, and humans will have difficulty earning their trust.
Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker Diet
Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers have very similar diets, mainly of insects. They will eat larvae, grubs, spiders, ants, and other insects that dwell primarily in wood.
This benefits the bird by providing them with the protein and nutrients they need, but it also keeps the trees from deteriorating by getting rid of insects that could potentially harm the bark.
For those attempting to attract either Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers, the foods that will appeal to both birds are the same. Both Woodpeckers enjoy the following foods:
Remember that attracting Woodpeckers in a residential area will likely bring Downy Woodpeckers, as Hairy Woodpeckers tend to live in the woods as they are wary of humans.
Are They Related?
It might be easy to assume that because the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker look so similar, they might be closely related. However, this is not the case.
While the Hairy-Woodpecker shares more DNA with the Ladder-back Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpeckers are cousins to the Red-cockaded and White-headed Woodpeckers.
So, the uncannily similar traits between the two birds actually has very little to do with blood relation. This suggests that they look so alike to do to evolutionary circumstances.
Remember, Downy Woodpeckers are significantly smaller than Hairy Woodpeckers. Some scientists believe that they may have evolved to resemble the Hairy Woodpecker to trick both the Hairy itself and other species into thinking that it is the larger, more intimidating bird.
What is our conclusion? The Hairy Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker are beautiful birds to come across for birders or for people who see a flutter of wings in their own backyard.
While both birds are a cherished and necessary part of their ecosystems, there are some key differences between the two of them that birders will want to look out for.
Their plumage, beak size, body size, habitation, behavior, and voices make them unique.
Next time a Woodpecker is drumming at a tree or flapping its black-and-white wings, remember this guide to help identify whether it is a Downy Woodpecker or a Hairy Woodpecker.