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It's All in the i-Details - Downy or Hairy?

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

What’s black and white and red all ov..., no, wait, the red is just on the head. There are several woodpecker species that fit this description in London and two of them can be tricky to tell apart at times. If you are out on the Christmas Bird Count, you may very likely see one or both of these species, so it will be helpful to know the difference between Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The birds in the photos represent ones you have likely seen at a feeder or on a walk. The main difference is the size of the bird and the size of the bill. Think of the Downy Woodpecker as a smaller, more petite version of the Hairy. If you see red markings on the back of the head, you are looking at a male of either species. The female is just black and white all over. On the Downy, the red marks merge into one head band, but on the Hairy, the red appears as two spots since they are separated by a black vertical band down the middle.

It isn’t always easy to determine the relative size of a bird if it isn’t side by side for comparison. Instead, focus on the bill and see if it looks more like a stout, pointed chisel with its length matching the width of the bird’s head or more like a dainty pick, less than half the width of the bird’s head. Some comparisons of the two species point out the presence of black spots on the outer tail feathers of the Downy compared to a clean white on the Hairys, but I don’t find that an easy mark to see all the time, so rarely look for it. Perhaps you will have a better look.

Downys are more likely to be seen in suburban neighbourhoods and Hairys prefer wood lots with more mature trees. Both will come to a suet, sunflower or peanut feeder in the winter. I find the easiest way to distinguish between the two look-a-likes is to listen for their call. The smaller Downy gives a soft “pik” sound, whereas the more robust Hairy calls out a “pik” in capital letters! - sounding more like a sharp “PEEK”. Although many birdwatchers tend to rely on their eyes (and cameras) to help with bird ID, its good to engage your ears too for a complete picture. The third black/white and red woodpecker found in London is the impressive Pileated and is unmistakable in its size and always a stunning sighting for birdwatchers.

** photos from top: Downy male, Downy female, Hairy female, Hairy male

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