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Hairy and Downy Woodpecker Bills

12-31-13 woodpecker billsDistinguishing Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) from their smaller relatives, Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), can be challenging if you don’t have a chance to view both species at the same time. The easiest way to tell them apart is to note the relative size of their bills. The Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is proportionately much larger than the Downy Woodpecker’s – it’s almost as long as its head — whereas the Downy Woodpecker’s bill is not nearly as impressive. Although a Downy Woodpecker can’t drill or probe as deeply into trees as a Hairy Woodpecker, it does have at least one advantage due to its overall smaller size; it is light enough to balance on the stems of goldenrods, which usually aren’t strong enough to support Hairy Woodpeckers. It is here that Downy Woodpeckers drill for overwintering goldenrod fly larvae inside goldenrod ball galls – a popular winter snack for this species.

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15 responses

  1. Marilyn

    New, useful information about these two woodpeckers. Usually I know which I’m looking at, but not always; the Downy’s ability to excavate galls – something to watch for!
    Thank you.

    December 31, 2013 at 1:06 pm

  2. A.

    Also, the downy has two black spots on the white lateral edge of the tail, visible when perched. The hairy lacks these.

    December 31, 2013 at 1:26 pm

  3. Neat post, but it reminded me of a question I’ve been wondering about for some time: why do some birds have a “beak,” and some have a “bill”? Are there structural differences between the two, or can the words be used interchangeably? Thanks, and happy New Year!

    December 31, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    • I believe they are used interchangeably, Kellyann…to my knowledge, there’s no difference in meaning. I usually use bill when talking about waterfowl, but I think you could use either one, any time!

      December 31, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      • Thanks!

        January 1, 2014 at 6:31 pm

  4. Sara DeMont

    Great to learn more. They are both making frequent visits here on the hill.

    December 31, 2013 at 3:49 pm

  5. One more reason to leave the goldenrod standing through winter…good to know. thank you!

    December 31, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  6. Thanks for the very useful information. Happy New Year to you.

    December 31, 2013 at 11:33 pm

  7. pam voss

    Mary, What’s an easy way to tell an crow from a raven?

    January 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    • Good question, Pam. Not an easy one to answer! Size, of course, but unless the larger raven is flying right near a crow, that’s not much help. Same with bill size (raven’s larger, heavier), at least for me. I go mostly by voice (raven more guttural, deeper) and try to get a good view of the bird’s tail while it’s flying…crows supposedly have square corners, whereas raven tails are wedge-shaped…not always that helpful. Sorry there’s no quick and easy way I know of distinguishing the two, unless they are calling.

      January 1, 2014 at 4:20 pm

  8. A trick I’ve used to get myself to quickly remember which is which (Hairy vs. Downy) is by the first letter of it’s name: H is for Hairy and also Huge (as in bigger, larger). Even though a Hairy woodpecker is not huge it is larger than the smaller Downy one.
    Also not the most scientific but often quite useful, I’ve been told, in terms of identifying a Raven vs. a Crow: if something about what you are seeing or hearing makes you wonder “Is that a Raven?”… it most likely is one. (bulkier size, lower voice, etc..)

    January 7, 2014 at 8:14 pm

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