Downy or Hairy?

Downy or hairy woodpecker? (photo by Donna Foyle)

5 March 2024

Last month my friends and I were debating the identity of a woodpecker photographed by Donna Foyle during the Backyard Bird Count. Is this a downy woodpecker or a hairy? The photo’s partial view and low light conditions make it an interesting ID challenge.

First let’s look at two clear photos of both birds, downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) and hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), then talk about the field marks.

Male downy woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male hairy woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The downy woodpecker is 3/4 the length of a hairy woodpecker and weighs less than half. However, this is a tricky field mark when you don’t have both birds next to each other. (*Thank you, Laura, for reminding me in the comments.)

The easiest field mark when you’re looking at a solo bird is the length of the beak relative to length of the head.

Downy vs hairy beak lengths compared to the head length front-to-back (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
  • The downy’s beak is shorter than his head front-to-back.
  • The hairy’s beak is the same length as his head front-to-back.

Unfortunately the bird in Donna’s photo seems to have an intermediate bill length. Perhaps it was the angle.

The size of the white patch on the downy woodpecker’s neck is larger than the one on the hairy. David Sibley illustrated this clue to their identity in an article in 2011. The clue is subtle in my comparison photos but the bird in Donna’s photo seems to have a large white patch on its neck. Downy?

Downy vs hairy white face patches compared (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The fourth clue is on the back of the male’s head but you need a photo to see this.

  • The red on the back of the male downy’s head is a continuous line.
  • The red on the back of the hairy’s head is broken by a vertical black patch.

The hairy’s head photo was the best I could find. David Sibley has a good illustration at this link.

Downy vs hairy red on back of the head compared (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, downy woodpeckers have dots on their outer tail feathers while hairy woodpeckers have all-white outer tail feathers. Photos of missing white dots were not useful so there is only this illustration.

Illustration of male downy woodpecker noting the dots (image from Wikimedia Commons)

I have never — ever — seen the tail feather field mark because I am too busy looking at beaks.

Kathy Miller had the best advice during the downy-hairy debate, “If I can’t tell which one it is, it’s a downy.”

(photos from Donna Foyle & Wikimedia Commons)

9 thoughts on “Downy or Hairy?

    1. Thanks, Laura. I can’t believe I left that out! So I’ve updated the blog.

  1. This is always the great debate in my head when looking at my bird feeder. I try to look at the size of the bird and also the beak length. I will definitely take these other differences into consideration before I send off my eBird checklist. Thank you!

  2. I read somewhere that when you’ve seen a Hairy woodpecker, you know it. Like, they are just that much larger, in every sense. That seems to work for me. I’d say Donna’s is a Downy, it doesn’t scream Hairy to me in that photo.

  3. Here’s what works for me: when at my suet cake, the downy is roughly the size of the cake. The hairy, of course, extends far enough below to leave no doubt.

  4. Hairy has a black slash where the wing meets the body, on the side of the breast and Downy typically does not. I don’t know how reliable that is but it can be seen on the photos in the post.

    Also their calls are different, but that takes a lot of experience to judge that.

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