How to Tell the Difference Between Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Figure out which woodpecker is which with these expert tips.

Downy and Hairy WoodpeckerPhotos by John Piznuir
Photos by John Piznuir Downy on the left and hairy on the right. Notice how much larger the hairy woodpecker’s bill looks.

Downy woodpeckers are among our most common and beloved backyard birds, but did you know they have a look-alike cousin: the hairy woodpecker? Telling downies apart from hairy woodpeckers can be a challenge, but once you know what to look for, it’s not so tough after all!

Look at the Plumage

Smartly patterned in black and white, with a touch of red on the males, downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers look remarkably similar to each other. Both downies and hairies have black central tail feathers and white outer tail feathers, but there are a few sneaky clues to differentiate between the two. Downy woodpeckers have a few black bars or spots on their white outer tail feathers, while the outer tail feathers on the hairy are usually plain
and unmarked.

Size Them Up

The hairy woodpecker is distinctly larger than its downy cousin—about nine inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. (To compare, the downy woodpecker is about six and a half inches long.) Their size difference is surprisingly hard to see, except when they’re side by side, which doesn’t happen often. A more reliable way to notice their size differences is to look at the shape of their bills. The downy has a tiny, stubby beak, barely as long as the distance from the front of its head to its eye. The hairy woodpecker’s bill is much longer and stronger, nearly as long as the bird’s head.

Listen Carefully

You’ve probably heard a downy woodpecker’s call: a short, friendly pik and a high-pitched, descending whinny. The hairy woodpecker has a more attention-grabbing call: a sharp, arresting peek!, like the sound of a squeaky dog toy. Hairies also have a sharp rattle that stays at one pitch, unlike the downy woodpecker’s call.

Observe Habitat Preferences

Although downy and hairy woodpeckers share some of the same habitats, downy woodpeckers are more likely to be seen in suburbs and small parks. Hairy woodpeckers generally prefer heavily forested areas with large trees.

Be Wary of Identical Fledglings

Just after they leave the nest, young downy and hairy woodpeckers can be confusing at first. While both downy and hairy woodpecker adult males have a red patch on the back of the head, fledglings have red on top instead. Sometimes, especially on young hairy woodpeckers, the patch is yellow, not red. Youngsters may have extra black marks on their sides or white back stripes. Watch one of these confounding fledglings for a while and you’ll probably see its parents come to feed it, solving the mystery.

3 Tips to Attract Woodpeckers

  • Serve suet and suet cakes in wire mesh baskets hanging on trees or in holes drilled into logs.
  • Offer peanuts and sunflower seeds in any kind of feeder that allows a place for tree-climbing birds to cling.
  • Leave dead trees standing, as long as they don’t pose a safety hazard. Woodpeckers (and many other cavity-nesting birds) will reward you with a visit.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.