How to Tell the Difference: Downy vs Hairy Woodpeckers

These woodpecker species look quite similar but there are some differences, too. Compare downy vs hairy woodpeckers with these expert identification tips.

downy vs hairy woodpeckersMarie Read
A female hairy woodpecker female and female downy woodpecker perch on same bird feeder.

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

Downy vs. Hairy Woodpecker: 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. Check out 10 woodpecker species birders should know.

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. Discover the 4 best foods for attracting woodpeckers.

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. Next, learn everything you need to know about red-bellied woodpeckers.

Observe Habitat Preferences

Consider the habitat when comparing downy vs hairy woodpeckers. 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. Meet the redheads of the bird world: Red-headed woodpeckers.

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. What is a fledgling? Learn the five stages of a baby bird’s life.

3 Tips to Attract Downy and Hairy 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 bird 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.

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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.