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Downy or Hairy Woodpecker?

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have nearly identical coloration and can be hard to tell apart. Don’t be fooled by the little patch of red on the back of the head – the males of both species sport this little bit of color. The big difference between the two is size, with the Downy being a bit over 6” tall and the Hairy about 9”.

Size of the bill in relation to size of the head is the best feature to use to distinguish between them. The Downy’s bill is about one-third the length of it’s head while the Hairy’s bill is almost as long as the head. Once you start paying attention to this feature the difference will become pretty obvious – you’ll find yourself saying “that’s one honking big bill!” when you see a Hairy Woodpecker.

Also note that the Downy is by far the more common species and is found regularly at backyard feeders. The Hairy prefers more woodland habitat and is a less frequent visitor to feeders. I do see one every now and then, and if I’m lucky it will show up at the peanut feeder, which at 9” tall is just about the size of the Hairy!

Left: Hairy Woodpecker. Right: Downy Woodpecker. Illustrations from the book "A Field Guide to the birds" by Roger Tory Peterson.


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