Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker: Differences and Similarities

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If ever a pair of birds could make you get deja vu, it’s these two: the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker! Nope, it’s not a glitch in the Matrix: these bird cousins can fool the eye.

A Downy Woodpecker looks like a Hairy Woodpecker’s smaller twin brother–and since the size is relative when you’re at a distance, that trait doesn’t always help either.

How do you tell these brothers from another mother apart? Why do they look so similar? Are these woodpeckers a rare sight?

Why is a woodpecker “hairy” anyway? We’ll answer all your most frequently asked woodpecker questions in this Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker throwdown!

What Is the Difference Between Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker?

The major difference between a Hairy Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker is their size. A Hairy Woodpecker is a species of woodpecker that is a third and a half larger than a Downy Woodpecker.

That translates to a Hairy Woodpecker being 7-10 inches long, while a Downy Woodpecker is only about 5 to 7 inches long.

Another key difference is the bird’s beak size relative to its head. A Hairy Woodpecker has a very long-looking bill that is about equal in length to the size of its head. It’s got a thick, substantial bill.

The Downy Woodpecker’s bill is only about ⅓ the size of its head. It looks shorter and more delicate than the beaks of other woodpecker species. They are perfect for pecking tree trunks and dead trees

The outer tail feathers of a Downy Woodpecker are spotted, although that’s not an easy detail to catch.

You can see it more readily if the curious bird is perching with its profile toward you.

Hairy Woodpeckers have white outer tail feathers without spots. It’s one of the noticeable differences. 

Famed bird guide illustrator David Sibley offers an additional helpful hint: Downy Woodpeckers have a larger white patch that’s visible on the sides of their necks.

Hairy Woodpeckers have fewer white stripes and more black marks in this area. They also have black feathers. 

Are Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers Closely Related?

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are actually not all that closely related, even though they look very similar. There are subtle differences 

It’s possible that Downy Woodpeckers evolved to look similar to the bigger and tougher Hairy Woodpeckers to help them intimidate other birds and hold on to resources like food and territory.

An earlier study suggested that Downy Woodpeckers may be trying to avoid aggression from Hairy Woodpeckers by fitting in with them–a type of social camouflage.

But scientists aren’t convinced that Hairy Woodpeckers are deceived by the Downy’s “disguise” because Hairys still frequently target Downys for aggression.

These birds are separate species but belong to the same family, the Picidae, which includes all woodpeckers.

There are also several other types of birds in the Picidae family: piculets, wrynecks, and sapsuckers.

There are 240 species in the Picidae family. They share common behaviors such as their namesake, “wood pecking,” cavity-nesting, and communicating by drumming their beaks on wood.

However, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers each belong to different genera, and the Picidae family has 35 genera.

Hairy Woodpeckers are part of the Leuconotopicus genus, while Downy Woodpeckers are part of the Dryobates genus.

Do All Downy Woodpeckers Have a Red Spot?

Male Downy Woodpeckers have a small red patch on the nape of their necks. Juveniles also have a red feathered cap. But adult females do not have a red spot.

However, this trait won’t help you tell Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers apart. Male Hairy Woodpeckers also have a red patch on the nape of their necks, and females do not. Juvenile Hairy Woodpeckers have the red feathered cap too.

One difference between the red spots you can sometimes find: male Hairy woodpeckers frequently have a red patch split in half, but Downy woodpeckers do not.

Also, remember that other woodpeckers have red patches on their heads or necks that could look similar to the Downy and Hairy.

Bottom line: the red spot alone isn’t going to narrow things down too much!

Is Hairy or Downy Bigger?

Hairy Woodpeckers are about a third to a half bigger than Downy Woodpeckers. A Downy Woodpecker is somewhere between a sparrow and a robin in size.

A Hairy Woodpecker is about equivalent to a robin in size.

Knowing these size comparisons to other birds can help you make a quick identification in the field. For all the times you can’t follow the birds with a ruler!

Why Is It Called a Hairy Woodpecker?

Hairy Woodpeckers have long, thin white feathers running down the middle of their black backs that look like hair. This unusual trait gives them their name.

Hairy Woodpecker

Although these fine feathers resemble hair, the Hairy Woodpecker does not actually have any real hair. No birds have hair; only mammals do.

Is the Downy Woodpecker Rare?

No, Downy Woodpeckers are not rare. They’re actually quite abundant. In good news, they’re thought to be doing well, without evidence of population declines.

Downy Woodpeckers are more commonly encountered than Hairy Woodpeckers, especially if you’re living in the suburbs.

Downy Woodpecker

Since they’re smaller birds, they don’t need the larger trees and densely wooded habitat that Hairy Woodpeckers do.

You’re more likely to spot Hairy Woodpeckers deeper in the woods once you’ve gotten further away from human habitation.

Keeping this difference in mind can also help determine if you’ve spotted a Downy or a Hairy.

Their need for undisturbed woodland makes Hairy Woodpeckers more vulnerable to habitat destruction. Their numbers are declining, especially because of the loss of nesting sites.

What Bird Is Similar to a Woodpecker?

If you’re really struggling to work out the difference between a Hairy or a Downy woodpecker, there’s a possibility that you might not be looking at one of these birds at all!

Birds that look similar to these woodpeckers include sapsuckers and flickers. Consider the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, for example. If you’re stumped, check out these families to see if you have a better match.

Using Their Heads

The next time you hear a rat-a-tat on a nearby tree, it might be one of these two woodpeckers! Which is which? Don’t forget the size and location.

Hairy Woodpeckers are bigger and more rural; Downy Woodpeckers are smaller and can live closer to town. Use your head, and you can sort these two head-banging birds out!

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Stevie Miller

Stevie Miller is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience. Her lifelong passion for birds began young, starting with a citizen science project at her aunt’s bird feeders, followed by a memorable first-time birdwatching trip to Assateague Island. Later, she got the opportunity to help birds directly while working as a veterinary assistant. Now she enjoys frequent time outdoors, traveling extensively to observe the birds, animals, and plants that inspire her writing and artwork.