July 15, 2018
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Distinguishing between these two woodpeckers can be tricky

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
The bill of a hairy woodpecker (shown) is about the length of the bird's head, making this bird distinguishable from the similar-looking downy woodpecker, which has a much shorter bill.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Slowly but surely birds are returning to my bird feeders. Some never left. I’m talking about you, woodpeckers.

It’s been a weird autumn, with above-normal temperatures and abundant natural food in the woods. Birds have been turning up their noses at feeders for two months, or they would if they had noses. Only two birds have been faithful visitors in my backyard: hairy and downy woodpeckers.

The two species resemble each other, though the downy is much smaller. When both are at the feeder, the size difference is wicked obvious. However, woodpeckers seldom cooperate that much. You are more likely to spot them up in a tree where distance and perspective make identification challenging. Fortunately, there are loads of clues.

Hairy and downy woodpeckers exhibit black-and-white plumage on the body with a white stripe down the back. The black wings of both birds are checkered with white, and males of both species have a red patch across the back of the head.

Despite their similarities, they are different in many ways. Among them, this is a dead giveaway: The bill of a hairy woodpecker is much longer. It’s about the length of the head. The downy woodpecker’s bill is much shorter, only about a third of the length of the head. It looks like a short little nub. If you are trying to identify one of these woodpeckers high up in the treetops, the relative length of the bill compared to the head is your best clue.

With additional observation, you might notice that the hairy woodpecker has a tendency to stand more erect. Downy woodpeckers often appear squatter, hunched-over.

All woodpeckers are vocal, and these guys are no exception. The downy woodpecker has a downward whinny that is unmistakable. Think “downy down” when you hear a woodpecker whinny descend in pitch. The hairy woodpecker has a larger vocabulary, including a loud rattle that stays on one pitch. It sounds a little like the rattle of a belted kingfisher.

The call notes of hairy and downy woodpeckers are similar, but distinguishable with practice. The call note of the hairy sounds like a loud “peek.” The downy sounds like a softer “pik.” To be honest, it took me years to get the hang of it, and I still get it wrong sometimes.

Likewise the drumming is different. The drum of a hairy is faster, so fast that the taps blend together in a blur, like a machine gun. The taps of a drumming downy are slower so that you can hear every tap distinctly. Mostly. If the drum is too fast for me to feel like I can count the taps, it’s invariably a hairy woodpecker. If I think I can count the taps, it’s a downy. But, sometimes it’s a judgement call as to how distinct the taps are, and I’ll occasionally get it wrong.

The two woodpeckers behave a little bit differently. Hairy woodpeckers tend to stay on the trunk and large branches. Downy woodpeckers will go up into the skinny branches at the tops of trees. If I see a woodpecker up in the thin scrub at the top of a birch, I don’t even have to look further. It’s a downy. A hairy just doesn’t go up there.

Downy woodpeckers are much more likely to associate with other small birds, especially in winter. There is safety in numbers, with more eyes spotting threats and food. Foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets will often contain a downy woodpecker. Due to its larger size, the hairy has a little less to worry about from avian predators, and it’s a bit more solitary. I find that when there is trouble around and the small birds are raising an alarm, a downy is likely to fly in to investigate, while a hairy usually doesn’t.

The two species don’t seem to view themselves as competitors, even though they enjoy the same basic habitat and food supply. They can be in the same tree without complaint, and even perch on the same feeder. They share a very extensive range over most of North America. It’s likely that the downy woodpecker can find food in the thin branches of the treetops that is inaccessible to heavier woodpeckers.

Both woodpeckers are bold around feeders. Yesterday, a downy sat patiently 4 feet away while I finished filling the feeder. Sometimes, a hairy will fly right in and glare at me impatiently until I’ve fed him. They’ve got attitude.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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