Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker

Updated: 4 days ago

Do you confuse the Downy Woodpecker with the Hairy Woodpecker? You are not alone! Use this guide as a quick reference, the next time you see two of our most common woodpecker species.

Downy Woodpecker Male (left) versus a Hairy Woodpecker Male (right). Hairy Woodpeckers are about 30% larger than Downy Woodpeckers.

The Downy (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) are two of our most common woodpecker species occurring in the US. They can provide an identification problem for new or inexperienced birders. Below, you will find the strongest identification points for recognizing these bug-bullies.



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Head and Bill Comparison of Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker

The Hairy Woodpecker silhouette is in black, and the Downy Woodpecker silhouette is in white. (Not to scale)

In the graphic above, I overlaid Downy Woodpeckers, in white silhouettes, on the Hairy Woodpeckers in black silhouettes. The small bill of the Downy Woodpecker creates a "cute" impression. The Hairy Woodpecker has a much more obvious bill, giving it a more "robust" or "rugged" appearance. The small bill of the Downy Woodpecker also accentuates the feather tuft at the base of the bill.


If the silhouettes are not helpful, here are actual photos of the head and bill sizes from these two species, side-by-side.

Downy Woodpecker (left) and Hairy Woodpecker (right) bill comparison. The bottom individual for each species is a female.

Here is my rule for the bill:

If the bill sticks out, it's a Hairy, no doubt. If the bill is hard to see, you've got a Downy.

I just made that up. I've never used it for a rule. But you sure can!




Comparison of Tail Patterns on Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers


To many, the tail of the Downy Woodpecker is the easiest field mark for species identification. The Downy Woodpecker typically shows black patterning on the outer rectrices (r5 and r4). It can be extensive, almost absent, and everything in-between. The pattern itself is not helpful, just the presence of the markings that create the pattern. The Hairy Woodpecker RARELY has black marks on the outer rectrices, however, you can often find Downy Woodpeckers with black markings that are not readily visible. If you see the marks, you are quite safe to identify the bird as a Downy Woodpecker.

Downy Woodpecker tails (left) typically show black markings on the outer rectrices, and the Hairy Woodpecker tail (right) lacks markings on the outer rectrices.


The Hairy Woodpecker "Spur"

The female Hairy Woodpecker (left) shows the large spur on the upper breast, and the Downy Woodpecker female (right) does not show the spur.

An often-overlooked field mark is the "spur" found on the upper breast up of the Hairy Woodpecker. Downy Woodpeckers can show this mark, but it is much more obvious on Hairy Woodpeckers. Caution! Immature Hairy Woodpeckers often will lack this trait.

The Hairy Woodpecker spur is on the left. The Downy Woodpecker typically does not show much of a spur.

Whether you call it a spur, a comma, or a plumage peninsula, the Hairy Woodpecker usually shows this strong field mark.



Final Thoughts on Woodpecker Identification


The Hairy Woodpecker is larger, louder, longer-billed, and has a less-marked tail than the Downy Woodpecker. The first photo in this post is not to scale, but it gives a great impression of the size difference between these two species. The Hairy Woodpecker is about 30% larger than the Downy Woodpecker (depending on several variables). If these tips do not help you in your woodpecker identification, there are several other posts available on the internet to aid you in your birding quest!


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Want to know our favorite ID guides? Here's the Flocking Four from Amazon:


  1. The Sibley Guide to Birds

  2. The Crossley ID Guide

  3. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

  4. National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America


None of the above guides are truly field guides. However, they are still the most helpful guides to learning bird identification that we have found. New birders will definitely appreciate the ease of use with The Sibley Guide to Birds. Start there, and work your way to easy bird identification!



Credits/References

Photo 1: Downy Woodpecker flickr photo by Shenandoah National Park under the CC0 Public Domain. Modified from original for use.
Photo 2: Downy Woodpecker (UL) flickr photo by Shenandoah National Park under the CC0 Public Domain. Modified from original for use.
Photo 2: Downy Woodpecker (C) flickr photo by Shenandoah National Park under the CC0 Public Domain. Modified from original for use.
Photo 2: Downy Woodpecker (BL) flickr photo by USFWS Midwest Region under the CC0 Public Domain. Modified from original for use.
Photo 2: Hairy Woodpecker (C) flickr photo by Glacier National Park under the CC0 Public Domain. Modified from original for use.


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