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Is That a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker?


by Cathy Carnes, Oconto


It’s cold and I’m glad to see a Downy Woodpecker at our suet feeder.  It’s fueling up on those fats, carbohydrates and proteins to help it through a wintry day.  The bright red patch on the top of its head adds a cheerful splash of color that brightens the otherwise gray day.  Considering that our suet feeder is also visited by the closely related Hairy Woodpecker, it occurs to me that the feeder would provide a quick visual guide to help distinguish between these two woodpecker species that look so much alike.  

From the photos you can easily see that the Hairy is larger than the Downy.  According to National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Field Guide), the Downy is the smallest North American woodpecker (6 ¾” long), about 2/3 the size of the larger Hairy Woodpecker (9 ¼”) and has a smaller bill than a Hairy. In what other ways are these two woodpecker species similar or different?

Femail Hairy Woodpecker.jpg

Female Hairy Woodpecker

Image Credit: Joel Trick

Male Downy Woodpecker.jpg

Male Downy Woodpecker

Image Credit: Cathy Carnes

Consulting the Field Guide, the two species are a study in black and white; they have white backs and breasts and their black wing feathers are speckled with white spots and bars. The male of both species sports a red spot on the top of the head; the female does not.  Also, if you look close, you can see that the Downy has black bars on its white tail feathers, while the Hairy does not.  Their calls are somewhat different.  The Downy’s pik, and whinny (downward descending call) are softer and higher pitched than that of the peek and slurred whinny of the Hairy. 

According to TheCornellLab, “All About Birds” website, both species use their chisel like bill to secure meals, eating mainly insects like beetle larvae that live inside wood or tree bark as well as ants and caterpillars.  About one fourth of their diet is plant material e.g., berries, acorns, and grains. They also enjoy the suet and sunflower seeds in backyard feeders and the smaller Downy may feed at hummingbird and oriole feeders as well. Woodpeckers like these help control insect pests such as bark beetles and codling moths in orchards.  Cavity trees (trees with holes in their trunks) provide food and nesting sites for woodpeckers, a good reason to keep old trees standing.

The stout bills of both sexes of the two species are also used to drum on trees as a means of communication – like a bird song.  This is also why woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects – to be heard!  Drumming may be done to establish and defend a territory, as part of courtship and mating, to attract a mate, or in response to an intruder. When excited both species may produce a wing noise in flight – a brr in the Hairy and wing ruffle in the Downy.

Female Hairy Woodpecker, courtesy of Joel Trick.

Male Downy Woodpecker, courtesy of Cathy Carnes.

According to Alan Haney’s wonderful bird book, Jewels of Nature, the Downy and Hairy are the only two species of woodpeckers found in all 49 states of the continental U.S.  Downys are the most common woodpecker in Wisconsin occurring in about twice the numbers as Hairys and the population numbers of both species appear stable. They tolerate our presence well and are easy to attract if you have trees.  So put up a suet feeder and enjoy the company of these beautiful, resourceful, and beneficial birds.  They will be even more fun to watch now that you know how to tell them apart.

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