Updated: Jun 4
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.
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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Bill and Head Size of the Downy Woodpecker & the Hairy Woodpecker
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.
Comparison of Bills for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers
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 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.
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.
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"
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.
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 are a few of our recommendations for beginners, from Amazon:
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!