Is It a Hairy or a Downy Woodpecker? Bill’s Telling

A Downy Woodpecker is like the mini-me of a Hairy Woodpecker. Almost all of the black and white markings, the habits and habitats and behaviour of the two birds are very similar. There are three noticeable differences, though. Today I was able to use two of them to tell apart two woodpeckers in a Mississauga front yard.

Of Course It’s Sharp. It Has to Drill Wood with only Woodpecker Power
If you can see it clearly, the bill is the most noticeable difference between a Downy and a Hairy.

Look at these photos. (And please try to ignore my shaky camera hands and bad lighting and composition!)

Photo of a Female Hairy Woodpecker in Profile Photo of Female Downy Woodpecker in Profile

One of these bills should look much sturdier and longer, like a pointed stick. The other is shorter and much sharper looking, like a needle. The sturdy long bill goes with the Hairy. The short sharp bill goes with the Downy.

Both of these birds were photographed minutes apart. In fact, they were on opposite sides of a small residential street near Toronto and I was alternating taking photos of both of them. They were checking out the same types of trees. (If you look at the bark, you’ll notice right now they are not on the same species.) Both were apparently travelling with a large flock of chickadees and nuthatches. All of the birds were periodically checking out several feeders in one of the yards.

So by habit and habitat, I could not have identified who was whom. But the bill is a giveaway.

Size Matters
Another giveaway was the relative size. Hairys are noticeably larger than Downys. They are about 3 inches (9 cm) larger. A Hairy is about the size of a smaller Robin. A Downy is about the size of a House Sparrow. If you get used to Downys because they live or nest in your yard, when you see a Hairy you will notice the size right away. We have a pair of Downys that nest on our block and often come visiting our yard. So when we get the occasional Hairy, it’s a visual shock.

Spotted and Plain Tailed
If you happen to get a clear view of the white tail feathers on either side of the central black tail feathers, you may be able to tell if you’re looking at a Downy or a Hairy. Downys have some darker spots on the white tail feathers. Hairys are plain, with no spots.

However, I just took 30 photos of these two birds, and not one of them allows you to clearly see the spots on the Downy. It is a good field mark when you can see it but the bill is usually easier to spot.

No Boys Today
Any observant readers will already have noticed that I met two chicks out for a girls day. Neither of these two birds has a red spot on its head. Both are females. Both Downy and Hairy males have a red spot on the back of their heads. Juvenile Downy woodpeckers can have a red cap.

For Further Information on Downy Woodpeckers
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Join In
Has a Hairy or Downy been visiting your yard recently? Have you had a woodpecker playing drum rolls outside your window all spring? Please share your experiences with a comment.

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