ID Challenge: Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

No matter what skill level birder you are, it’s fairly easy to tell a woodpecker from other birds. The obvious distinguishing characteristic of course is behavior. Other than nuthatches and creepers, few other birds cling to tree bark and probe for insects. Fewer still actually drill for those insects. Another handy characteristic is that most North American woodpeckers are some combination of black and white with maybe a little bit of red thrown in to spice things up.

Immature male mountain type Hairy Woodpecker. Note the red crown rather than red nape, which is characteristic of an immature bird. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The problem often comes when you try to tell different woodpeckers apart. Suddenly that black and white coloring isn’t so distinctive! A classic id challenge is distinguishing between the Downy (Picoides pubescens) and Hairy (Leuconotopicus villosus) Woodpeckers.

Female Downy Woodpecker on plum tree. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Both species are black and white with more white speckling on Eastern birds than those found in the mountains. Males of both species also have red patches on the nape of the neck. So how can you tell the difference? Well, one way is that, while both are found in Colorado, they tend to inhabit different ecosystems. While I occasionally see a Downy Woodpecker pecking away at the dead plum tree in my backyard, I’ll almost certainly never see a Hairy Woodpecker out there. That’s because Downy Woodpeckers seem to prefer more open stands of deciduous trees and riparian areas. Hairy Woodpeckers, by contrast, are more partial to deeper forest, something my very suburban neighborhood just can’t provide. They’ll also nest in areas with more coniferous trees.

There are also some differences in size between the two. Just like with the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, if the two species are right next to each other (the Downy is smaller), you’re golden, but since that rarely happens, bill size is the best field mark. The Downy Woodpecker’s bill is tiny, much smaller than the width of the head when viewing the bird in profile. The Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is more robust and is almost the same length as the width of the bird’s head.

Jeff Birek of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding a female Downy Woodpecker at Poudre Riverfest 2014 in Fort Collins, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.

If you’re still confused, there’s another characteristic the Downy Woodpecker has that the Hairy doesn’t, but you’ll have to have a great view of the bird in question’s tail feathers. The Downy typically has little black spots on its outer white tail feathers. The Hairy’s outer tail feathers are completely white.

And there you have it. With the leaves off the trees, now is a great time to go looking for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, which are non-migratory, so why not go on a little field trip to test out your new skills?


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