Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker: Which One is Which?

Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker: how are these two birds different? While the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker may look alike, the two species have some key differences.

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest species in North America, measuring only 6-7 inches long. Its black and white feathers and red cap make it easy to identify. On the other hand, the Hairy Woodpecker is slightly larger, measuring 9-10 inches long. It also has black and white feathers, an unspotted white back, and a longer bill.

When it comes to identifying these two woodpeckers, size is one of many factors you’ll look at. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter bill and a smaller head, while the Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill and a larger head.

Additionally, the Downy Woodpecker has a shorter tail and a higher-pitched call. By paying attention to these subtle differences, you can quickly tell the two species apart and appreciate the unique characteristics of each woodpecker.

Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

Physical Differences

There are several physical differences to consider when comparing Downy (Picoides pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus). These differences include size, coloration, and male vs female characteristics.


One of the most tell-tale differences between the two species is their size.

Downy Woodpeckers 

They’ll measure about 6-7 inches long and weigh around 1 ounce.

Hairy Woodpeckers

Hairy, however, are more prominent, measuring about 9-10 inches long and weighing around 2.5 ounces.

Coloration – Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

Another similarity between the two species is their coloration. However, below are some minute differences.

How to tell the Downy from the Hairy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers 

Like the Hairy, the Downy has a black and white striped pattern on the head. The Downy may have more white on the wings. Plus, the downy has white eyebrows that continue around the back of the head.

Another differing feature is the black spots on the side and back. Hairy woodpeckers do not have these spots.

Hairy Woodpeckers 

It’s hard to tell these two apart by just looking at the black and white stripes on the side of the head. Being that they both have white bellies and black and white wings. However, Hairy Woodpeckers have a dark stripe right down to the nape from the back of the head. (see photo above)

Male vs Female Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

Male and female Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have similar coloration patterns, but subtle differences exist.

Male Downy Woodpeckers 

It’s important to note that male Downy woodpeckers have larger bills than female Downy. So the male Downy and female Hairy will have a similar bill size. They have a small red patch on the back of their head, while females do not.

Male Hairy Woodpeckers 

They also have a small red patch on the back of their head. The male Hairy on the Eastern side of the Rockies will have white spotting on their black wings. 

Female Downy Woodpeckers 

The female Downy woodpecker is smaller than the Hairy. You’ll want to look for the short bill and black spots, not streaks along the white sections of feathers. You might find the female Downy woodpecker nesting closer to humans.

Female Hairy Woodpeckers 

Compared to the Downy, the female Hairy woodpecker is bigger with a larger bill. You’ll find that the female Hairy on the Western side of the Rockies will have less spotting and narrower facial stripes. The female Hairy woodpecker tends to reside in forests, staying away from humans.

Behavioral Differences – Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

There are some notable variations between Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers regarding behavioral differences. Let’s look at their feeding, nesting, and migration tendencies.

Feeding Habits

What do woodpeckers eat? Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are known for their love of insects, but they have different preferences regarding the types of insects they consume.

Downy Woodpeckers 

They tend to focus on smaller insects, such as ants and beetles. However, they will gladly eat from suet feeders and other backyard food supplies.

Hairy Woodpeckers 

They are a benefit to society. Not only do they go for larger prey like caterpillars and spiders, but they also feast on many wood-boring beetles that are destroying trees. The Hairy will extract these beetles from a hole in the trees.

Nesting Habits

Downy is a cavity nester

Downy woodpeckers like to nest in cavities

When it comes to nesting, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have some similarities. Both species excavate their nesting cavities in trees using the same type of nesting material: wood chips.

However, there are some differences in the size and location of their nests. Downy Woodpeckers build smaller nests closer to the ground and near city parks. On the other hand, Hairy Woodpeckers prefer nests higher up in the tree and deeper in the forest.

Migration Tendency

While you spot both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers throughout North America, they have different migration tendencies. Downy Woodpeckers are more likely to stay in one place year-round.

However, the Northern Hairy Woodpeckers are more likely to migrate south during winter. Both the Downy and Hairy on our list of woodpeckers in Florida!

Habitat – Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker

Woodpeckers are found in various habitats, including forests, woodlands, and suburban areas. Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are commonly found all over North America. Did you know that the Downy is one of the common woodpeckers in NY?

Can You Attract Them To A Bird Feeder?

You can attract Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers to your backyard bird feeder. But the Downy is a more tame bird and likely to visit a backyard feeder. They are attracted to suet, peanuts, and black oil sunflower seeds. However, remember that they mostly prefer natural food sources like insects and larvae.

You should provide a suitable habitat to attract either one to your yard. Drawing them to your yard includes doing things like having mature trees, dead trees, and snags that provide nesting and foraging sites. You can also provide a nesting box to encourage them to breed in your yard.

Hairy is a cavity nester

Hairy is a cavity nester

Here are some tips to attract Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers to your bird feeder:

  • Provide a variety of food sources, including suet, peanuts, and black oil sunflower seeds.
  • Use a feeder that is appropriate for their size and behavior.
  • Place the bird feeder in a location that is visible and accessible to the birds.
  • Keep the feeder clean and free of mold and bacteria.
  • Provide fresh water for drinking and bathing.
  • Avoid using residual pesticides and other chemicals in your yard.

Vocal Calls and Drumming

You can hear some of these calls in our video above. When woodpeckers are drumming on trees they are not harming them. People often ask us: do woodpeckers kill trees? ( ⬅️ learn more at this link) but the simple answer is that “no,” they do not.

Downy Woodpeckers 

They have a contact call (pik) that is short and gentle, whereas their drum sequence is slow and steady, about 9-16 per minute.

Hairy Woodpeckers 

The Hairy has a sharper, louder contact call than the Hairy. Moreover, its drumming sequence is much faster at 4-9 per minute.


When it comes to the lifespan of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, there are some differences to note. Here are a few things about Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker to keep in mind:

  • Average Lifespan: Downy Woodpeckers typically live for 2-5 years in the wild, while Hairy Woodpeckers can live up to 10 years.

  • Factors That Affect Lifespan: Several factors can impact the lifespan of woodpeckers. These include habitat loss, predation, disease, and climate change.

  • Breeding Habits: Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers breed once a year, typically in the spring. They lay 4-5 eggs, and both parents take turns incubating them for about two weeks. After hatching, the baby birds are fed by both parents for several weeks before they fledge.

  • Mortality Rates: Mortality rates for young woodpeckers are high, with many dying within the first year of life. However, if they survive their first year, they have a better chance of living longer.

Overall, while Downy Woodpeckers have a shorter lifespan than Hairy Woodpeckers, both species face many challenges regarding survival. By protecting their habitats and reducing threats like climate change and habitat loss, we can help these beautiful birds thrive for years.

Conservation Status

When it comes to the conservation status of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, both species are not on the radar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This means neither species currently faces any significant threats to their survival, and their populations are considered stable.

However, it’s important to note that this status can change over time, and conservation efforts are still necessary to ensure that these birds continue to thrive in the wild.

One of the biggest threats to woodpeckers, including Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, is habitat loss. As forests are clear-cut for development or other purposes, the birds lose their homes and sources of food. Additionally, climate change can also have an impact on food availability and nesting sites.

To help protect woodpeckers and their habitats, several conservation efforts are underway. These include:

  • Protecting and restoring forested areas
  • Encouraging sustainable forestry practices
  • Promoting woodpecker awareness and education about the importance of these birds and their habitats
  • Monitoring populations and studying their behavior and ecology

By taking these conservation steps, we can help ensure that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and other woodpecker species continue to thrive in the wild.

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Reference Guides and sources for this article on Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker:

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds 

The Sibley Guide to Birds