Hopping up and down trees across North America are two very similar woodpecker species: the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. Both are black and white with almost identical patterns, and both can be found in the same habitat. At first glance it may seem impossible to tell these two birds apart, but upon closer inspection there are some tell tale differences that birders can use to make a positive identification.
The first thing that helps to differentiate these species is size. The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the downy with an average length of 18-26cm and a wingspan of 33-41cm. The Downy Woodpecker measures in at 14-18cm long on average and a wingspan of 25-30cm. This means that the Hairy Woodpecker is approximately one third bigger than a Downy Woodpecker and is about the size of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in size. While size isn’t always the most reliable tool when identifying a species, the difference between these two birds is fairly substantial.
The second and possibly best way to tell the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker is by looking at the bill. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill that is about equal in size to the length of the head. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter more triangular bill about one third to one half the size of the length of the bird’s head. Bill size comparison is much easier than overall size comparison when there are no direct comparisons available in the field.
There are two field markings that can be used to separate the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker. The first is a comma mark that goes from the shoulder to the breast. This marking is seen most prominently on the Hairy Woodpecker and is often not visible at all on the Downy. The second marking to look for is the black barring on the white other tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker that the Hairy Woodpecker lacks. While at a distance these two things can be hard to spot, closer up or with optics, both field markings can be used to differentiate these two woodpeckers.
Defined comma marking
Pure white outer tail feathers
Short triangular bill
Less defined or non existent comma marking
Black barring on outer tail feathers
Although these birds have strikingly similar color patterns and behaviors, with the right knowledge they can be very easy to tell apart. We hope this post was helpful, follow our blog and give us a like of Facebook and Youtube