Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers Photo from
12 June 2010 Written by 
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Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

The Downy Woodpecker (Popcoides pubescens) and Hairy Woodpecker (Piocoides villosuis) closely resemble each other in coloration. With similar appearance and habits, they are best discussed together.  They both are largely black and white with white under parts.  The males have a small red patch on the back of the head and neck, while the females lack this red field mark.  Their habitat is largely the same, and the Downy and Hairy both range across much of North America. 

The main distinction between the two species is size.  The Downy is about 6 1/2” long, while the Hairy is two to three inches larger.  The bill of the Downy is small and thin, while the Hairy has a chisel like beak that is proportionately much larger and thicker.  The Hairy also has a distinctive white back when seen in flight.  On the male Hairy, the red patch is often in two sections, separated by a black band.

The woodpeckers’ songs and calls are different.  The Downy has a “pik” or “pick,” that is soft and a high-pitched whinny.  The Hairy Woodpecker has a louder whinny, reminding one of the rattle of the Kingfisher.  Its “peek!” call is sharper and more grating than the Downy.

Downy Woodpeckers are much more common than Hairy Woodpeckers. They defend about 4 acres of territory.  Hairy Woodpeckers defend perhaps a quarter acre, though they search for food over a much wider area.

The preferred foods of both species is similar, largely insects, larvae, and eggs, mostly gleaned from searching the bark of trees. They also eat wild fruit and seeds, as well as poison ivy seeds.

Woodpeckers are sometimes heard year round with soft pecking of tree bark for insects. This is a different from the highly distinctive drumming that is heard when a bird drills into a hollow trunk or even on wooden or metal signs or houses.  This is largely territorial in nature, and more commonly heard in the spring.

These woodpeckers do not generally migrate, and breed throughout their range.  Both species have a single brood of 3 to 6 eggs, with incubation lasting just under two weeks.  The young remain in the nest 20 to 25 dies for the Downy, a few days longer for the Hairy.

When in flight, both species have a roller coaster-like, or undulating flight.  When flying, the white back of the Hairy Woodpecker becomes clearly visible.  When seen in trees, both species (and most other woodpeckers)  will usually be climbing up the central trunk or larger branches.

The Downy Woodpecker is commonly seen in most of its range, almost any part of Eastern North America with forests or groves in parks or suburbs. Both the Downy and the Hairy Woodpecker can easily be attracted to feeders, especially suet feeders.   It is pretty easy to determine the size of the woodpecker when seen on a suet box. The Downy is smaller, and can often be closely approached. The Hairy  looks like a large Downy, is a less frequent visitor to the feeder, and more likely to spook easily. 

In a suitable area, even in a city lot with trees, try putting up a suet box feeder.  It’s a good bet that this would attract these woodpeckers to your yard, and brighten your day during the cold, northern winter. 


Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Internet Resources

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

All About Birds: Downy Woodpecker

All About Birds: Hairy Woodpecker

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Roger Chambers

Roger Chambers is a regsitered nurse, working in geriatric nursing for over 30 years. Since 1997 he has tended a large organic garden at his urban home. He has traveled widely in the US and Canada, Europe and Latin America.

He has had several articles in hobby publications on shortwave radio, and several poems in local arts journals and newspapers. An avid fan of birds and the Adirondack Mountains, at present he is largely focused on natural seasonal changes, holidays, and associated local fairs and festivals.

Roger resides in the beautiful Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

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