Downys – The Smallest North American Woodpeckers

by Larry Jordan on December 6, 2010

Female Downy Woodpecker photos by Larry Jordan

Last weekend I was building some new bluebird houses in my garage when I heard a Downy call as she flew into a nearby oak tree.  My car was parked next to the garage (as I was using the garage space to build the birdhouses) so I stopped working, scurried over to the car and got out my digiscoping setup.  It was a bright, sunny day and I was able to get some good photos of her.

Some folks have trouble differentiating the Downy Woodpecker from the Hairy, but this should really not be a problem.  Other than the fact that the Downy is quite a bit smaller and has a much smaller bill, there are other ways to tell these two look-alike woodpeckers apart.  The Downy’s bill is petite and shorter than its head, whereas the Hairy’s is heavy and long.

I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of a Hairy Woodpecker to compare side by side, but after reading this post, you won’t need one.  Here is a shot of the male Downy Woodpecker.

He’s got the red patch on the back of his head, as does the Hairy and also the all white back, but notice the black markings on the outer white tail feathers.  The Hairy Woodpecker’s outer white tail feathers have no markings on them.

Both species have all white underparts.  Here is a better shot of the red patch on the back of the male’s head.

One of the best ways to distinguish these two birds is there behavior.  Take a look at the top photo again of the female Downy Woodpecker.  What do you see?  She is clinging to a tiny terminal branch of that oak tree.  You will never see a Hairy Woodpecker out that far on a small branch of a tree.

To quote Pete Dunne, from his book Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, “people have difficulty distinguishing Downy from Hairy because they give too much weight to plumage and not enough to the powers of human perception.  Downy is a tiny compact woodpecker that would have to stretch to see over a coffee mug.  Hairy is a full-sized big-billed street brawler of a woodpecker that would have no trouble peering over a beer mug.”

Now, go see some other great bird photos at Bird Photography Weekly!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat December 7, 2010 at 6:24 am

Both these varieties of woodpeckers are regulars at my feeders. I love watching them.

I never knew that tidbit that only downies venture out on a limb. Good to know to share with others who are just learning.

Nice photos!

Reply December 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Love the Pete Dunne quote, he is absolutely right on the money with that! This one of those “similar species” puzzles that really helped me develop the gestaldt sense in birding. Once you get that, it all just seems so obvious sometimes. A good way to get someone in the zone, as it were, is to think Hairy=Huge (as in bill and overall relative impression) and Downy=Demure (again as in bill and impression). It’s silly, but it helped me anyway. Has anyone else heard this one or can I claim it was born of my own imagination?


Larry December 8, 2010 at 6:22 am

@Kat it must be nice getting both of these species at your feeders. lucky you!

@Chantelle I like that, huge and demure. I think you can claim it, at least I have never heard it before


NatureFootstep December 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm

this is aninteresting post Larry. Our woodpeckers mostly sit slose to the trunk. But I have seen one in the very top of a fur.


Drew December 9, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Nice shots. I really need to do some more digiscoping, its always fun to see what results other people are getting.


Mike B. December 10, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Thanks Larry- I always have to take an extra look to figure out which is which. I’ll have some Downy photos in next week’s Weekly edition…


dreamfalcon December 11, 2010 at 12:01 am

Thanks for sharing – we don’t have Downies over here.


Nicole December 11, 2010 at 8:28 pm

They are beautiful!
I had a hard time distinguishing the various peckers in Hungary 🙂


Phil December 12, 2010 at 9:04 am

Nicely summed up differences Larry with super close-ups. Isn’t it peculiar that red is such a predominant colour in ‘peckers the world over?


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