Downy and hairy woodpeckers are two of the most similar woodpecker species found in the same geographic range.
They have slightly different habitats, but both species may be spotted in local forests and backyards.
The main difference between the downy woodpecker and hairy woodpecker is the size. Hairy woodpeckers can grow twice as large as downy woodpeckers. They have longer and slender bills that are almost as long as the birds’ heads, whereas downy woodpeckers have shorter and stubbier bills. Hairy woodpeckers also have all white outer tail feathers. Downy woodpeckers have spotted ones.
The table below compares the differences between hairy woodpecker vs. downy woodpecker*:
|Spotted outer tail feathers, solid red patch on males’ heads
|All-white outer tail feathers, red patch often split in two
|Approx. ½ to ¾ the length of the head
|Approx. the length of the head
|Insects, berries, seeds, suet from birdfeeders
|Insects, seeds, nuts, berries, suet from birdfeeders
|January to March
|February to June
|Geographic range & habitat
|North America; deciduous forests and woodlands
|North America; conifer-dominated forests
*Data in the table was sourced from research papers, scientific journals, online magazines, and other official sources.
12 Differences Between Downy vs. Hairy Woodpeckers
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are two distinct species belonging to the same genus, Picoides.
They are closely related to one another and to other pied woodpeckers, such as the ladder-backed woodpecker and Nuttall’s woodpecker, to name just a few.
All of these species share morphologic similarities and most even share the same colors – black and white with a red patch on the head.
However, from all species, the downy and hairy woodpeckers are the most similar and often the hardest to tell apart.
2. Distinctive Markings
When learning how to tell the difference between hairy and downy woodpeckers, you may notice most experts suggesting size as the main telltale.
However, the truth is that figuring out the size of a small bird when seeing it from a distance can be challenging. Even more so if you’re new to birdwatching.
A surer way to figure out what type of woodpecker you’re observing is by looking for distinctive markings.
One of them is the distinctive red patch both downy and hairy woodpecker males have on their heads.
When looking at the bird from its back, downy woodpeckers have a solid red patch across the head. Hairy woodpeckers have the mark split in two by a vertical black stripe that connects the black crown to the black nape.
The black markings on the side of the neck are also more visible over the bird’s shoulders in hairy woodpeckers, whereas downy woodpeckers have less prominent markings.
Another essential difference between the two birds is the aspect of their outer tail feathers.
Downy woodpeckers have black spots on these feathers. In hairy woodpeckers, the outer tail feathers are fully white.
The size and shape of the bill can also help you tell the two birds apart.
Downy woodpeckers have shorter bills than hairy woodpeckers. Their bills are also stockier and covered by a bushy patch of white feathers at the base.
Hairy woodpeckers have longer and slender beaks. The shorter feathers at the base of the bill also have a smoother appearance.
Male vs. Female Woodpeckers
The main difference between male vs. female downy woodpecker is the absence of a red marking at the back of the head for females. The size and overall appearance are otherwise similar between the two sexes.
A similar difference can be observed in male vs. female hairy woodpeckers – females lack the red marking on the head, but are otherwise similar to the males.
Telling the difference between a female hairy woodpecker vs. downy is sometimes more challenging than identifying between males of the two species.
Typically, female hairy woodpeckers maintain the vertical black stripe that splits the red mark into two in males. However, this line is very faint sometimes or it may lack altogether.
For a more accurate identification, you should also look for all the other distinctive markings explained above.
As mentioned, hairy woodpeckers are visibly bigger than downy woodpeckers.
The former measures between 7 and 10 inches on average, even though some individuals can reach 13 inches in height.
Downy woodpeckers are daintier, rarely measuring over 7 inches in height.
Comparatively, downy woodpeckers are about the same size as a house sparrow (and can be sometimes seen feeding alongside them in backyard feeders).
Hairy woodpeckers are about the same size as American robins.
Considering the size differences between the two species, it doesn’t come as a surprise that hairy woodpeckers are heavier than downy woodpeckers.
Specifically, they weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 ounces. Downy woodpeckers are at least two times lighter, weighing between 0.74 and one ounce.
Wingspan is another consequential difference related to size.
Downy woodpeckers have a wingspan between 10 and 12 inches on average. This is about three to six inches shorter than the wingspan of hairy woodpeckers, which varies from 13 to 16 inches in adults.
6. Bill Size
An important difference between hairy vs. downy woodpeckers is the length of the bill.
While all woodpeckers have long bills relative to their size, hairy woodpeckers stand on top of the list with a bill length of around 1.33 inches.
That’s less than half-an-inch shorter than the bill of red-headed woodpeckers, which are a known species of small birds with long beaks.
By comparison, downy woodpeckers have shorter and stockier bills that are often obscured by fluffy white feathers.
When observing the bird, downy woodpeckers’ bills are about a third of the birds’ heads in size. Hairy woodpecker bills are about the same length as the head, and sometimes longer.
Discerning between downy and hairy woodpecker sounds can be incredibly challenging, especially for beginners and occasional birdwatchers.
Both woodpecker types use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with other members of their species. Calls include short, sharp peeks that are typically higher pitched in downy woodpeckers, who sound rather whinny.
In hairy woodpeckers, the sounds are lower pitched and more of a rattle, often being described as “more empathic.”
In addition to calls, both woodpeckers also make other sounds.
Drumming on trees is frequent in both hairy and downy woodpeckers. The behavior is present in both males and females, even though more frequent in females who use the sound to solicit mating at the beginning of the breeding season.
Other reasons for drumming include territory defense, courtship, and response to intruders.
These drumming sounds are used exclusively for communication and are different from those made when drilling into the wood to build nests or dig for food.
They are rapid, evenly paced, about one-second long, and consisting of around 26 beats.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers alike feed mostly on insects and larvae, which they dig out from tree trunks and limbs.
Hairy woodpeckers can also be spotted foraging on vines and shrubs, whereas downy woodpeckers can forage on minor branches and twigs that they can climb acrobatically and hang from upside-down.
Woodpeckers eat a variety of insects, including beetles, ants, wasps, bees, and caterpillars.
They also eat berries, nuts and seeds, and both species can be seen feeding on suet from bird feeders in backyards, especially during winter.
Woodpeckers in general are solitary birds, and this is also true for the hairy and downy varieties. Both species are diurnal and permanent residents in their home ranges.
Short-distance migratory behavior can be observed in woodpeckers living in the northernmost territories of North America.
During winter, woodpeckers may also be seen foraging in small groups. Woodpecker pairs also stay together after mating to raise the young, in which time they may forage together.
Like most woodpecker species, downy and hairy woodpeckers are monogamous and share parental responsibilities. However, neither of the two species mates for life.
The downy woodpeckers’ breeding season starts in late winter to early spring (January to March), depending on geographic range.
Once the breeding pair forms, they start foraging together.
Both members of the pair contribute to excavating a nest in a living or dead tree trunk or in a tree limb. Females lay between three to eight eggs, which are incubated by both parents during the day and by males at night.
Eggs hatch after around 12 days and the chicks are brooded nearly constantly by one of the parents. Both parents forage and feed the chicks, the breeding pair remaining together throughout the summer.
Hairy woodpeckers have a warmer breeding season that goes from February to June, depending on location.
Females usually advertise for a male by drumming and once the pair bonds, males are usually responsible for excavating the nest.
Hairy woodpeckers lay around two to five eggs, which are incubated by both parents. Hatching takes around 14 days, the young leaving the nest around a month after hatching.
The breeding pair splits soon after the young leave the nest, but females typically maintain their territory.
In both downy and hairy woodpeckers, the same pair may choose to mate again for several breeding seasons in a row.
11. Geographic Range & Habitat
Downy and hairy woodpeckers share the same geographic ranges, but they prefer slightly different habitats.
They are both distributed across North America, from sea level to high in the mountains.
Hairy and downy woodpeckers also occur in Central America, but their presence here is typically restricted to higher mountain forests.
As far as habitat preferences go, hairy woodpeckers prefer conifer-dominated forests with large trees and high tree density. Downy woodpeckers are more likely to be seen in deciduous forests, but also in orchards, small parks, and the suburbs.
However, the rules are not set in stone and the two species can often share the same habitat.
12. Conservation Status
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, hairy and downy woodpeckers are abundant species in their native ranges and are not threatened in any way.
Downy woodpeckers have a stable population, even though it is not yet estimated how many adult individuals the species counts.
According to the same Union, there are around 8.9 million mature hairy woodpeckers in the world, and the population trend is increasing.
Are Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers Related?
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are two different species in the same genus, and they are related.
They are also incredibly similar from a visual standpoint, but differences in height, beak length, and plumage markings can help tell the two species apart.
Whether it’s a hairy or a downy woodpecker visiting your backyard, we hope this guide can help you identify the species correctly.