Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker

In the rich tapestry of North American birdlife, woodpeckers hold a special place, captivating birdwatchers with their distinctive drumming and foraging behaviors. Among the various species, the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker are often subjects of fascination and sometimes confusion due to their strikingly similar appearances.

Let’s explore the differences and unique characteristics of these two species, providing insights into the world of these remarkable birds.

What is a Downy Woodpecker?

The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is the smallest woodpecker in North America. It’s easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage, small size, and stubby bill. Measuring about 5.5 to 6.7 inches in length, these birds are often seen in a variety of habitats including woodlands, orchards, and backyards.

Downy Woodpecker

The male Downy Woodpecker is identifiable by the small red patch on the back of its head. Adapted for life in the trees, their sharp, chisel-like beak is used for drilling into wood to find insects. They are also known for their agility and can be seen hopping along tree limbs and trunks with remarkable dexterity.

What is a Hairy Woodpecker?

The Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), while similar in appearance to the Downy, is notably larger, measuring about 7 to 10 inches in length. These woodpeckers share the same black and white color pattern as their Downy counterparts but have a much longer, more robust beak in proportion to their body size.

hairy woodpecker difference from downy

 This distinguishing feature is often the best way to tell them apart from the Downy Woodpecker. Like the Downy, the male Hairy Woodpecker has a red patch on the back of its head. 

They inhabit a range of wooded areas across North America and are known for their powerful pecking ability, capable of drilling deep into the wood to extract insects and larvae.

Difference Between the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker, although remarkably similar in appearance, exhibit distinct differences that can be noted upon closer observation. 


One of the most notable differences lies in their size. The Downy Woodpecker, being the smaller of the two, typically measures about 5.5 to 6.7 inches in length. In contrast, the Hairy Woodpecker is larger, with a length ranging from 7 to 10 inches. This size difference is significant and often the first indicator used to distinguish between them.

Proportion of Balls

Another critical difference is the size and proportion of their bills. The Downy Woodpecker possesses a shorter, more delicate bill, which appears almost dainty in comparison to its head size; the bill length is usually less than the width of its head. 

On the other hand, the Hairy Woodpecker features a much longer and robust bill, roughly equal to the head’s width. This pronounced bill size not only serves as a distinguishing characteristic but also reflects their foraging behaviors and the types of insects they target.

Body Structure

The body proportions between these two species also vary. The Downy Woodpecker has a more compact and slender body, making it appear more delicate. In comparison, the Hairy Woodpecker has a more robust and larger body relative to its bill and head, giving it a sturdier appearance. 

This difference in body proportion further aids birdwatchers and enthusiasts in correctly identifying these species in their natural habitats. Despite these differences, both species share similar habitats and behaviors, often leading to confusion. 

However, with careful observation of these key characteristics, one can reliably differentiate between the charming Downy Woodpecker and its larger counterpart, the Hairy Woodpecker.

Sound and Vocalizations

The Downy Woodpecker’s calls and drumming patterns tend to be softer and higher-pitched. Its typical call is a short “pik” sound.

The Hairy Woodpecker produces a louder, more forceful drumming and has a sharper, more distinct call. Its call is often described as a louder “peek” sound.

Feeding Habits and Diet

Both species feed on insects, but the Hairy Woodpecker, with its larger bill, can drill deeper into the bark of trees to extract insects and is more likely to forage on larger trees.

The Downy Woodpecker, with its smaller bill, often feeds on smaller branches and twigs, and it may also feed more frequently on insect larvae, seeds, and suet from bird feeders.

Habitat Preferences

While both species are adaptable and can be found in similar habitats, including woodlands, forests, and suburban areas, the Hairy Woodpecker often prefers larger tracts of mature forests.

The Downy is more adaptable to a variety of habitats, including urban and suburban areas, and is often more approachable and visible near human habitation.

Tail Feather Markings

The Downy Woodpecker typically has black bars or spots on the outer tail feathers.

The Hairy Woodpecker usually has pure white outer tail feathers without any barring or spotting.

Behavioral Differences

The Downy Woodpecker is often more sociable and less shy around humans, making it a more common visitor to backyard feeders.

The Hairy Woodpecker is more cautious and reserved, often appearing less frequently in close proximity to human activity.

By paying attention to these differences, particularly their calls, feeding habits, habitat preferences, tail feather markings, and general behavior, birdwatchers can more confidently identify these two species in their natural environments. Despite their similarities, these subtle distinctions paint a vivid picture of how two closely related species can adapt and thrive in overlapping yet distinct ecological niches.

Downy Woodpecker vs Hairy Woodpecker – Table


Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker


Smaller, about 5.5 to 6.7 inches in length.

Larger, about 7 to 10 inches in length.

Bill Size/Proportion

Shorter, less than the width of its head.

Longer, about as long as the width of the head.

Body Proportions

More compact and slender.

More robust and larger.


Softer, higher-pitched calls (“pik”).

Louder, sharper calls (“peek”).

Feeding Habits

Prefers smaller branches and twigs; eats more insect larvae and seeds.

Drills deeper into bark for insects; forages on larger trees.

Habitat Preferences

Adaptable to various habitats, including urban and suburban areas.

Prefers larger tracts of mature forests.

Tail Feather Markings

Typically has black bars or spots on outer tail feathers.

Usually pure white outer tail feathers without barring.


More sociable, less shy around humans; common at backyard feeders.

More cautious and reserved; less frequent around human activity.


Is seeing a woodpecker good luck?

In many cultures, seeing a woodpecker is considered a sign of good luck, representing opportunity, progress, and determination.

Why is it called a downy woodpecker?

The Downy Woodpecker is named for its soft, down-like feathers on its back, which are more noticeable compared to other woodpeckers.

How rare is it to see a downy woodpecker?

Downy Woodpeckers are not rare in their range and are actually one of the most common and widespread woodpecker species in North America.

What does the woodpecker symbolize?

The woodpecker symbolizes persistence, opportunity, communication, and determination. In some cultures, it’s also seen as a symbol of protection and strength.

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