Downy Woodpecker male 4/12/18

Telling a Downy Woodpecker apart from a Hairy Woodpecker is one of those conundrums that plague beginning birders. In just about every feature they look almost exactly the same, white underneath, and mostly black above with white spots and stripes. There are 3 reliable field marks that tell them apart. Size is the first and most obvious, the Downy is our smallest woodpecker at 6.5 inches, while the Hairy is half again that size at 9.5 inches. But size is often unreliable unless seen up close or with other birds. The second and best feature to tell them apart is their relative bill size. For a woodpecker, the Downy has a proportionately small bill, while the Hairy has a proportionately longer and more robust chisel-like bill. Unfortunately one can only get the feel of this difference with experience. The 3rd thing that tell them apart is that the outer tail feathers of a Downy are white with black spots or bars, while the Hairy’s outer tail feathers are all white. Unfortunately one doesn’t often see tail feathers that closely. The most peculiar thing about these two birds is that despite a nearly identical appearance, they aren’t closely related, not even in the same genus!

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