Downey and Hairy Woodpecker Field Marks

Identifying Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers

Asteinmann recently posted a two pictures, one of a Hairy Woodpecker and one of a Downy Woodpecker, and included information on how to differentiate these two similar woodpeckers.  Here’s what asteinmann said:

I have both Downy and Hairy woodpeckers at my suet feeders. They are not always easily distinguished. Many birders rely on size (Downys are about 72% the size of Hairys) or the length of the bill [Hairys are bigger]. However, if the woodpecker is high up in a tree or at some distance, size may be hard to gauge, and you may not be able to see the bill clearly. Another way to distinguish these two species is by the feather pattern on the back of their heads. Downys have a black cap below which is a white band that completely rings the back of the head. Look closely at the photo and note the white band is nearly continuous [appears as salt-and-pepper on the back of the head here]–this is a female Downy (males will have red feathers on the back of the head instead of white, but the red will also be continuous in a ring below the black cap).


Hairys have a black cap, below which is a white band on the back of the head that is bisected by black feathers. Look closely at the photo and note the white ring is not continuous on the bird’s head but is bisected by black feathers–this is a female Hairy (males will have red feathers on the back of the head, but they will be bisected by black feathers).


There have been many times out in the field when I have observed a small woodpecker and tried to tell if it was a Hairy or Downey.  Asteinmann is correct in that if you see the bird in profile the size of the bill (Hairy is bigger than Downey) helps, but as he says, if the bird is high on the tree or its back is facing you it is difficult to determine bill size.  His tip about the white band will be helpful.

Thanks for the tip, asteinmann!

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