How to Tell a Hairy Woodpecker From a Downy Woodpecker

Size and tail color are two of the biggest clues when deciphering these two backyard regulars.
Hairy (left) and Downy Woodpecker. Photo: Kristina Deckert

What’s black and white and red all over? Both Hairy and the Downy Woodpeckers, unfortunately. It’s easy to find these woodpeckers out in the woods (just like you find shorebirds on the shore), but an early identification challenge for new birders is distinguishing between these two common species. Though they’re very similar, there are some key differences to look out for.

First, check for the major difference in bill size. The Downy’s bill is dainty and about one-third the length of the bird’s head. The Hairy’s bill is a railroad spike in comparison, and almost as long as the its head.

If the bill is not in view—the bird is usually facing a tree, after all—move on to what is perhaps the best clue: overall size. The Downy is a little over six inches tall, while the Hairy is almost 50 percent taller.

Spying this three-inch difference across a meadow or a yard can be hard at first. You have two options. You could glue rulers to every tree and feeder in sight, or you could remember that a Downy is about the size of a House Sparrow, while the Hairy is about the size of a robin.

Hairy (left) and Downy Woodpecker. Illustrations: Roger Tory Peterson

Don’t worry, it gets easier with practice. Imagine if someone were holding up a silver teaspoon and a silver tablespoon. Up close, the two are easy to tell apart, even though they’re the same basic shape and color. But at a distance of 40 feet or more, the difference in length becomes less obvious.

As your woodpecker moves around, you’ll be able to judge its size in relation to other objects (leaves, branches, etc.). Over time the size will become more familiar to you, and you won’t need to lean on the surrounding visuals.

More subtle clues include the Hairy’s all-white outer tail feathers, compared to the Downy’s spotted ones. Also, the male Hairy’s red patch is often split in two, while the Downy’s is not.

Lastly, it’s important to note that the Downy Woodpecker is much more abundant than its Hairy counterpart, especially in suburbia. The Hairy prefers towering trees and deeper woods, while the Downy will settle for baby birches and cattails.