Recognize the subtle patterns of woodpeckers

Two woodpeckers: Downy Woodpecker (left) and Hairy Woodpecker (right)

One of the major bird identification challenges in North America is separating the Downy Woodpecker from the Hairy Woodpecker. Both of these species are common almost anywhere and they are regular visitors to backyard bird feeders, where anyone can see them.

Their general appearance is strikingly similar, and the only practical way to identify them is to focus on overall size and beak size, both of which are larger in Hairy Woodpeckers. If you’re lucky enough to see them together, it’s easy to tell the two species apart as Hairy is unmistakably bigger and more powerful. Separately, however, it can be quite difficult to determine whether a bird is large or small. Woodpeckers also have a difference in tail pattern (Downy has small dark spots on the outer tail feathers), but this is hard to see and not completely reliable.

For years I observed and searched, hoping to find easily visible, objective details that would let anyone seeing one of these species for the first time know which it was. I failed.

I focused on the head pattern because that’s where most of the distinguishing features of the species are, and I found a lot of things that tend to be different, but they’re all subtle and too variable to be the key that unlocks identification.

That said, here are some of the details that differ. The black patch on the cheek is more parallel to the nape in Hairy, while in Downy the width of the patch is markedly uneven. The pale supercilium (which includes the red patch in males) wraps around the back of the head a little lower in Hairy, higher in Downy. The dark malar stripe extends a little further down the side of the neck in Hairy, then a black spur extends forward down the side of the chest, while Downy has a black stripe that does not extend as far back on the neck. and no spur on the chest.


The net result of all this is a general impression of a more evenly striped head on the Hairy Woodpecker, with a long, straight band of black eyes bordered above and below by similar white stripes. On Downy, the impression is instead a black patch on the cheek and a few other black and white patches, including a larger white oval on the back of the head.

See also  Identification of Wrentit and Similar Songbirds

This more streaky Hairy Woodpecker look might be somewhat helpful at a glance, but it’s just too variable and subtle to be reliable. So I’m still using beak length and overall size to identify these peaks, but the quest will continue.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.


David Sibley describes the different drum sounds of Downy and Hairy peaks