Two woodpecker species in particular have been giving birders a hard time due to their striking similarities. We are talking, of course, about the downy and hairy woodpecker. See for yourself:
Like all woodpeckers, or members of the Picidae family (which also includes piculets, wrynecks and sapsuckers), you will chiefly find these guys clinging to tree trunks and signaling their presence through repeatedly drumming or, as the name would imply, pecking at wood. They also use their powerful beaks to excavate nesting holes in trees, which are often reused by smaller species.
For the most part, these two species’ ranges overlap, but there are some slight differences that can make the identification process easier. While both are year-round residents of North America, hairy woodpeckers are more tolerant of warmer climates, and you can find them further south.
The first thing you need to be on the lookout for when telling these two apart is their size. Hairy woodpeckers are considered to be medium-sized birds, measuring around 9.8 inches in length with a wingspan of roughly 15 inches, whereas downy woodpeckers are the smallest of all North American woodpeckers. Their size ranges from 5.5 to 7 inches and they have a wingspan of 9.8 to 12.2 inches. If these numbers tell you absolutely nothing, picture it like this: hairy woodpeckers are about the size of a blue jay with a short-ish tail, while downy woodpeckers are the size of a house sparrow.
Another marked difference is the size of their bill. Downies’ bills are short, in contrast to hairy woodpeckers’ bills that measure a little over half the length of their head. These differences in bill length and size give the two species differing looks. The tiny downy woodpecker could only be described as cute, as opposed to the hairy woodpecker’s more austere attitude.
Birds of a feather
The differences between a downy and a hairy woodpecker’s plumage patterns may be subtle, but they’re there, and mastering the art of telling them apart will take your birding credentials to the next level.
See that white band? It goes straight down a hairy woodpecker’s cheek, but narrows slightly at the edges in downy woodpeckers. In hairy woodpeckers, the black bar underneath also extends farther onto the nape. Keep your eyes open for the so-called “comma” mark that extends from their shoulder onto their breast.
Some hairy woodpeckers also have it, though it is not as apparent! Another thing to be on the lookout for is the red patch of feathers on the back of the male’s head. In hairy woodpeckers, it’s usually split into two!
If you’ve got a keen sense of rhythm, you can go about differentiating between the two species based on the speed of their drumming. You’ll notice downy woodpeckers drum at a slower rate than the frantic, fast-tempo drumming of hairy woodpeckers. See (or listen) for yourself:
As in all things, practice makes perfect, so the only way to ensure you become a master of bird identification is to see as many birds as you possibly can. Go ahead and find some to test your newly-acquired knowledge! Plus, it’s good for your health!