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Recognizing subtle patterns on woodpeckers

Two woodpeckers: Downy Woodpecker (left) and Hairy Woodpecker (right)
Downy Woodpecker (left) is notably smaller than Hairy Woodpecker, and its bill is shorter. Downy also has small dark spots on its outer tail feathers, which Hairy lacks. In this column, David Sibley points out other differences to look for. Art © 2022 by David Sibley

One of the top bird-identification challenges in North America is the separation of Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker. These two species are common almost everywhere, and they are regular visitors to backyard bird feeders, where everyone can see them.

Their overall appearance is amazingly similar, and the only practical way to identify them is to focus on overall size and bill size, both larger in Hairy Woodpecker. If you are lucky enough to see them together, it’s easy to tell the two species apart because Hairy is unquestionably bigger and more powerful looking. Separately, though, it can be quite hard to determine whether a bird is large or small. The woodpeckers also have a difference in tail pattern (Downy has small dark spots on its outer tail feathers), but this is difficult to see and not completely reliable.

For years, I have watched and searched, hoping to find some easily seen and objective detail that would allow anyone seeing one of these species for the first time to know which one it was. I have failed.

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

That said, here are some of the details that differ. The black cheek patch is more parallel-sided all the way to the nape in Hairy, while in Downy, the width of the patch is distinctly uneven. The pale eyebrow (which includes the red patch on males) wraps around the back of the head a little lower in Hairy, higher in Downy. The dark malar stripe extends a little farther back on the side of the neck on Hairy, and then a black spur extends forward onto the side of the breast, while Downy has a black stripe that doesn’t reach quite as far back onto the neck and no spur onto the breast.

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

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

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

David Sibley describes the different drumming sounds of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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