How to Spot the Differences Between Downy & Hairy Woodpeckers

How to Spot the Differences between Downy & Hairy Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are striking birds with their bold feathers. Some have red highlights, some have black and white stripes, and some even have a more solid coloring that can be seen from a longer distance. One thing these woodpeckers have in common is that they can all start to look the same if you don’t know your birds. 

Our Kaytee wild bird experts are here to help you distinguish between two commonly mistaken birds: the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker. To start, let’s test your knowledge! Can you tell which one is which from the two photos below?

If you look closely, there are some minor visible details differentiating the two. The Downy Woodpecker is on the left and the Hairy Woodpecker is on the right! Luckily, you will have more clues than just looks when spotting birds in the wild. Sounds, geographic region, and favorite foods can help distinguish a bird’s species. 

How can you really know which is which when you see these birds in your backyard? Use these tips and tricks for these commonly confused woodpecker species.

Downy Woodpecker Characteristics:

  • • Shorter Beak

    From a distance, this is one of the characteristics that can help you determine which species of woodpecker you are looking at. The small, pointy beak is strong for pecking, which is what the woodpecker species does best.

  • • Smaller-Sized Bird

    Compared to the larger Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker is smaller in size. 

  • “Whiney” Call with Descending Pitch

    The Downy Woodpecker makes a bird call that sounds whiney and descends in pitch at the end of the call, unlike the Hairy Woodpecker.

Hairy Woodpecker Characteristics:

  • • Longer Beak

     The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer, thorn-like beak that is more distinguished than its look-a-like, the Downy Woodpecker.

  • • Medium-Sized

    These birds are larger than the Downy Woodpecker, but they are still considered a medium bird, not a large bird like the Pileated Woodpecker.

  • • "Whiney” Call with No Descending Pitch

    The Hairy Woodpecker has a similar whining song, but unlike the Downy, it does not descend in pitch at the end.

Woodpecker Differences

Similarities between the Two Species

The similarities between these birds can be confusing, but they can also help you narrow down the bird to two potential species – the Downy or the Hairy Woodpecker. Both birds are found in North America all year long. They have black and white coloring, and the males have red accents. Both birds hang around the trunks and branches of trees. They have a rise-and-fall flight pattern, a style that they share with most other woodpeckers.

Both species enjoy sunflower seeds and suet from feeders. A large part of their diet is wood-boring insects from the trees they famously peck. Many people find them to be helpful in insect control.

When you know the main differences between the two birds, you can start to identify which birds are visiting your yard.

If you are looking to find bird seed or suet to attract more woodpeckers, locate a store near you that sells Kaytee Wild Bird Products.


Ask the Wild Bird Experts