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Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker - Identification of two black-and-white woodpeckers

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

The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpecker (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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Compare the bill and head of Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

In the following graphic, I overlay 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.

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

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

Bill comparison of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

In the following photo, check out the feather tufts on the Downy Woodpeckers on the left. If this tuft is matted down or missing, it can give the Downy Woodpecker a false large-billed appearance. However, when compared to its head size, the bill of the Downy Woodpecker will still be much smaller than that of the Hairy Woodpecker. Some would tell you about the ratio of bill size to head size, but ratios can be difficult to determine for those new to bird identification. If the bill is small compared to the head, it is almost certainly a Downy Woodpecker.

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

Here is my "fun" rule for the bills of these woodpeckers:

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! Really, I just wanted to make a rhyme about woodpeckers.


Want better details of distant woodpeckers? You need a 600 mm lens equivalent like the Sony RX10 IV!


Identify Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers by tail

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 tail (left) vs Hairy Woodpecker tail (right)
Downy Woodpecker tail (left) vs Hairy Woodpecker tail (right)

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

Identify Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers by the "spur"

Hairy Woodpecker spur and Downy Woodpecker lack of spur
The Hairy Woodpecker (left) shows the large spur on the upper breast, and the Downy Woodpecker (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.
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 Downy and Hairy 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).

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Want to see more of our favorite ID guides? Here are a few of our recommendations for beginners:


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! If you want to read all our recommendations on field guides, check out this post!

Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker Quiz!

Want to challenge yourself? I will be adding multiple challenging photos of each type of woodpecker, so make sure to check back into this post to give yourself a woodpecker challenge!

Small woodpecker showing tail field marks.
Identify this woodpecker from the underside!
A Downy Woodpecker tail shows little to no black markations.
There is minimal black here. Which woodpecker is this?
A Downy Woodpecker with exceptional markations.
This tail should be easy!

Quiz Answer

Photo 1: Use the tail markations to ID this woodpecker. The black markings indicate a Downy Woodpecker.

Photo 2: The minimal black on the outer tail STILL indicates a Downy Woodpecker.

Photo 3: The excessive black on the outer tail is definitively a Downy Woodpecker. This individual is the mate of photo 2.


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