Downy is Dinky, Hairy is Huge

Remember: Downy is "dinky" and hairy is "huge." Telling these two species apart can be made easier if you remember the size difference. The hairy's bill is as long as its head is wide.

Sometimes while trying to decide if a woodpecker is a hairy or a downy, I am reminded of Mark Twain's oft-quoted line: "Quitting smoking is easy. I've done it hundreds of times." For me it is: "Telling downy from hairy woodpecker is easy. I've done it hundreds of times."

Most bird watchers have trouble keeping the distinctions between the two separate because they just don't see enough hairy woodpeckers. In most parts of the continent, downies outnumber hairies at least eight to one, and in backyards the ratio is often twice that. In general, hairies prefer older, more extensive woodlands, and those are less common where there are houses. In winter, however, woodpeckers travel over a fairly large area during their daily feeding rounds, and almost anyone can have the good fortune to see a hairy at the feeder once in a while.

Field guides tend to focus on two field marks: the size of the bill and the presence or absence of black bars on the outer tail feathers. Both are reliable characteristics, but one requires experience and the other is useful only if you have a very good look. Before getting into those field marks, it is best to start with overall size.

Whenever I find myself looking at a woodpecker and trying to decide if it is big enough to be a hairy, it isn't. When a real hairy woodpecker shows up, the difference is obvious. The problem is just not seeing many hairy woodpeckers, and anyone can be fooled at first.

Hairy woodpeckers are not twice as big as downies, although when seen together, they often appear that way. Hairy woodpeckers are generally 9 to 9.5 inches long, towering over the typical 6.5- to 7-inch downy. A difference of 2 to 2.5 inches may not seem like much, but it is significant when tacked onto a bird only 7 inches long—about a 30 percent increase in size.

If you are trying to decide whether a woodpecker is a hairy or a downy in poor lighting conditions—purely on the basis of size alone—it is probably a downy. In the East, size confusion is common between hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, which are about the same size. In the West, confusion occurs between hairy, acorn, and white-headed woodpeckers or one of the sapsuckers. Of course, as soon as you see any detail of plumage, those problems go away.

If you look at a woodpecker and the size has not told you immediately whether it is a hairy or a downy, try looking at the bill.

Hairy woodpeckers have woodpecker bills: big, chisel-like appendages that are obviously designed for hacking away dead wood and bark. Field guides like to point out that the bill of a hairy woodpecker is just as long as the head is wide from front to back. This is true, but it requires a certain amount of in-the-field geometry, a subject I couldn't handle even in the classroom. For me the difference in bill size is obvious because downy woodpeckers have absurdly small bills, bills that look like they couldn't make a decent dent in a twig, much less a tree. Once you have seen both birds well, the difference in bill sizes is even more striking than the difference in body size.

When all else fails, it is time to check the outer tail feathers. On both hairy and downy woodpeckers, the two or three outer tail feathers are white. On the downy, the white feathers have a few black bars on them, but on the hairy the outer tail feathers are plain white. While the character is diagnostic, it is also hard to see. If a bird has not fanned its tail slightly, the black bars on the downy may not be visible. If you see black bars, you can be confident it is a downy. If you don't, double-check the other characteristics. The similarities in plumage apply to all ages and sexes, so the differences between male and female or adult and juvenal plumages won't help you determine which species is involved.

The other useful character for separating the two is voice, though it takes some experience to use it with confidence, especially the rattle call. Both hairy and downy woodpeckers have two primary vocalizations. One is a short, sharp pik call, and the other is a longer rattle, a rolling series of notes. As befits the bigger bird, the pik note of hairy woodpecker is louder, sharper, and more penetrating than that of downy, which is soft and almost diffident. The hairy's call is also squeakier, sounding more like peek.

The differences in the rattle call are the same. The hairy's call is a loud, ringing series of notes, emphatic and obvious. The call of downy is a softer rattle, less sharp and less strident. Until you are familiar with the calls, they are best treated as good clues rather than diagnostic characters. If the bird sounds loud and the call is sharp, it may well be a hairy. However, some of the best and most experienced bird watchers admit that they occasionally get fooled.

Learning to tell a downy from hairy woodpecker quickly and reliably is mostly a matter of experience. The more of each bird you see, the easier it will become, and eventually you will be tossing a name out without a second thought. Unless, like me, you go too long without seeing a hairy, in which case the memory banks might need a little kick.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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