Winter Birdwatching: Hairy & Downy Woodpeckers


Let’s talk birds… I kept putting out seeds and in December, when six feet of snow fell and the temps dropped to six below, I felt pretty happy I did. The chickadee’s, red-breasted nuthatches and a few dark eye’d juncos fed, then “slept,” then fed, then “slept” and well, you get the basic idea. (That also seems to be my winter hibernation pattern as well….) I put slept in quotes because it is not a very scientific way of talking about what they do but as humans we can relate to that much better then the term: Thermoregulation. 

So, all the really noisy and aggressive birds flew away and allowed me new sightings. My world became hushed under a thick layer of snow which made the drumming of woodpeckers that much more evident – what a neat new trick nature played! There was a male pileated that harassed us a bit but the new guys I had not noticed before were the Downy woodpecker and it’s almost identical twin the Hairy woodpecker.  Great… how to tell them apart was the new question of the day….

Let’s go by sexes;

Hairy Woodpecker (female)
This is a female Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus.) According to birdweb there are three variations of the hairy in Washington state alone. The ones found in Kettle range, not suprizingly, are more closely related to the rocky mountain hairies. You cannot determine a hairy by it’s feathers because there are fifteen subspecies as you travel across the United States. Instead they are distinguished by their size, which is typically larger in Northern states and by the length of bills. Compare the downy below to the beak size of this one. The Eastern Washington subspecies, like your rocky version, are distinguished by how much more black then they are white – the birds have fewer white spots and more black feathers and tend to look more “grayish” on the chest then ones in other parts of the United States.

female downy woodpecker
So by contrast here is the female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens.) Typically they are just about the size of a sparrow and have tiny beaks. These little beaks make them the most common woodpecker in the United States. While larger woodpeckers are competing for larger bugs these little guys feast in the tiniest cracks in trees, munch on the smaller bugs and thus in theory have more food, which in nature, is a good a darned good reason to have more babies!

Downy Woodpecker (male)
This isn’t my favorite shot but what it does do is give you an idea of the difference in size. This is a male Downy Woodpecker, who so far seems to be the most shy of all these birds. However, his small size is shown well because he landed on the same platform as the next guy who is a Hairy male.

Hairy Woodpecker (male)
The male Hairy Woodpecker, as you can see, is quite a bit larger and both of these shots allow for the comparison of the bill size as well. While the downy was shy about being photographed this guy was not the least bit ashamed. Here are a couple more fun shots of him. It looks as if he was eating on red berries before he showed up to “tell me off.”

Hairy Woodpecker (male)

and.. this shot comes to you for a good reason also. If your really interested in one of the primary differences between the two it’s that shoulder line or the black line that runs across his breast, often referred to as “a comma,”  the downy does not have those dark lines. (It looks like this guys beak is split but it’s not upon closer examination is the red berry juice on his beak that makes it appear that way.)
Hairy Woodpecker (male)

So in summary, if it’s rather large, has that shoulder line and a long beak it’s a Hairy. If it’s as small as a sparrow with no shoulder line it’s a Downy.

Enviromentalist Note: It’s become suspect that Hairy Woodpeckers are birds that are being deeply effected by threatened habitats and the disappearing of old growth forest. If you see any Hairies in your area it’s suggested that you post a note to one of your local birdwatching groups so that today’s orthonologist can offer up the condition of this species. You can also report sighting on Feederwatch.


6 Responses to “Winter Birdwatching: Hairy & Downy Woodpeckers”

  1. This is an excellent post, Lori! Your photos of these little guys are exceptional!

    We have both types here, although hardly ever see the Downys in the winter. I have also noticed, as you said, they are much more difficult to approach for pictures.

    We seem to have a fairly large population of the Hairy ones, including a couple that are always in our yard somewhere and we get to watch them every day.

  2. Stunning post on these wonderful woodpeckers! Very informative and you did a great job with it!

  3. Hi Montucky, I actually have found I’ve grown deeply attached to the birds that continue to hang with us in these blizzard type conditions. They may not be the flashiest of birds but hearty… I give them credit for that! I’m glad to hear you and your wife are experiencing some hairies in your yard as well! They are fun to watch and I love the males call! TY for visiting!

  4. Thanks Monarch, My female downy shot is nothing compared to yours but after my own confusion I thought I’d post up the info I’ve learned. I get a lot of local people sending me emails asking questions about our area and if I shoot up info here I can be lazy and just provide a link! ;o)

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  6. 6 Jeremiah

    I spotted one of the male Downy Woodpeckers this morning in front of my home near SE 118th and Mill Plain in Vancouver, WA- and after reading this information it worries me that I did. Deforestation is getting out of control and, while I enjoyed seeing this little fellow plugging away at the ants that usually get into my house- this means that things are not going well for them if they are willing to come this far into a populated area…

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