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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Help with Downy and Hairy Woodpecker Identification.

Many times when I’m in the field with a group of birders and we encounter a black and white type woodpecker, I hear the question “is that a Downy or a Hairy?”  Mostly this question is asked from beginners or less experienced birders, but, I have been with seasoned birders and birding alone when I’ve heard that same question.

These two species are not in the same category of difficulty as molting gulls and shorebirds, so we should be able to conquer the identification in short order. Of course, if you want to get good at woodpecker identification as well as bird identification in general, you must spend considerable hours at home studying your reference material and then a considerable amount of time in the field putting what you've learned into practice.

All the field guides tell you the best ways to separate Downy and Hairy Woodpecker is by the difference in size, bill shape and size, the presence or lack of dark spots or barring on the outer tail feathers and vocalizations.  

Ok, so let’s break down these suggestions and see if they help with the identification.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right).
Size: This field mark is difficult to use without experience. Hairy is much larger than Downy but this is hard to appreciate unless you happen to come across these two species simultaneously on the same tree. Very unlikely. 

Here are two photos I was lucky to get in my yard of both species together. In each photo the size difference is quite evident.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right). 

Other photos showing the obvious size difference.

Here you can see the smaller size of a Downy Woodpecker which can be held in my cupped hand. 

Hairy Woodpecker, on the other hand, is larger than my hand. 

Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 
Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 

Bill size: Once again experience is helpful. Determining bill size on a solitary bird can be difficult but not impossible and a good sustained look is helpful. Downy will show a short, pointed bill and with a good look from different angles, it can be described as a small chisel. Hairy, on the other hand has a whopping chisel of a bill. 

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right) bill comparisons. Hairy Woodpecker bill is noticeably thick at the base compared to the Downy's narrow base. Bill length is very noticeable in these side-by-side images. Obtaining a good view of this field mark will greatly assist in making the identification. 

Dark spotting/barring on the outer tail feathers: Once again, a good close look is really needed to appreciate this field mark. As far I can tell, Hairy Woodpecker has complete white outer tail feathers. Downy has dark spots or bars on the outer tail feathers but in my experience they vary from very apparent to faint to very faint. 

These images show the variability of the dark barring on the outer tail feathers of Downy Woodpecker. Hairy Woodpecker outer tail feathers are white without barring.

Vocalizations: The differences in calls are absolute identifiers and will assist in making the proper identification. I also recently learned that their is a difference in “drumming” between the two species with Hairy having a faster drumming rhythm. Might be worth checking out.

Whinny call - Hairy has a loud robust whinny, while Downy is softer and weaker in nature.

Downy Woodpecker - whinny Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Hairy Woodpecker - whinny New Jersey (Jeff Ellerbusch)

Call note - Downy sharp but soft, reminds me of a Song Sparrow call note. Hairy sharp, loud and emphatic.

Downy Woodpecker call note New York (Brad Walker)

Hairy Woodpecker - call note Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Drumming - Downy is steady, evenly paced but not rapid. Hairy is steady and rapid (supposedly is the fastest drumming of all North American woodpeckers)

Downy Woodpecker -drumming Vermont (David Eberly)

Hairy Woodpecker - drumming Vermont (Roy Pilcher)

Status and Distribution and Geographical Variation: Status and Distribution cannot really be used to assist with separating the two species. Both species occupy the same range and habitats and both are fairly common within their range. Downy may appear less shy and thus more numerous and I would guess that on an average field trip in appropriate habitat the ratio of Downy to Hairy might be 2:1 or 3:1.  Birds from the Rocky Mountains are generally darker with less wing spotting.

Geographical Variation - The photo on the left I took on Mt. Charleston, NV and shows the Rocky Mountain race of Hairy Woodpecker which has a lot less wing spotting and a very dark back which is quite striking when first seen. The Hairy Woodpecker on the right is from West Chester, PA.

I hope this blog simplifies the ID problem a little.

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