Another clue for identifying Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

In a previous post I wrote about differences in the black-and-white pattern on the neck of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and in comments there Dan Lane reminded me of a difference in the pattern of red on the nape of males, that I’ve heard about over the years but never really investigated.

Male Downy Woodpecker has a solid red patch across the back of the head, while male Hairy has the red patch broken by a vertical black line connecting the crown and nape.

Downy Woodpecker (left) and Hairy Woodpecker, males viewed from behind. Note difference in red pattern on hind crown. Gouache painting copyright David Sibley.

From Dan Lane:  “Throughout the East (from New England to the Gulf of Mexico), this pattern seems to hold consistently. Out West, my experience is much more limited (and is primarily in the northern Rockies there), but the times I’ve been able to check, it holds as well. I’ve noted that Hairies in the mountains of southern Mexico and Central America may not show the black divider, but my experience with these birds is very limited indeed.”

I’ll be watching for this more carefully, and would be very interested to hear from others and from other regions, either pro or con.

Update 14 Aug 2011:

Thanks to Michel Gosselin, who reports that among 200+ male Downy Woodpeckers (specimens at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, presumably mostly from that region) two have the red nape patch broken by a black band. In other words about 1% of male Downy Woodpeckers have a black band and match Hairy Woodpecker. So this is not absolutely diagnostic. Along with the cautions expressed in the comments about Hairys looking all red when their feathers are fluffed, this should be kept in mind, but it sounds like the presence of black should be a pretty strong clue and easy for backyard birders to use.

19 thoughts on “Another clue for identifying Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers”

  1. I just looked through my photos of Downy Woodpeckers – photos taken in Utah and Idaho. The males all had a solid red patch across the back of their heads. Females also had a solid white patch. I don’t have photos of Hairy Woodpeckers to compare to, but I wonder if the solid white patch vs. the broken white patch on females holds true.

  2. David –

    In my feeder birds here in Oregon, I have found the vertical black line to be consistent in Hairy woodpeckers. While I have never seen a male Downy with a vertical stripe, I have on one occasion seen a female Downy with a vertical stripe. The number of Downies I see is far greater than the number of Hairies I see, probably by a ratio of 10:1.

    The question intrigues me. I posed this question to the forum of feeder-watchers on Cornell’s participant forum about a year ago. The limited feedback I received back then was that at least one other had photographed a Downy with a vertical stripe. I assumed the difference was applicable to my local subspecies only and hadn’t thought more of it.


    Sandy P.

  3. What would a female downy with a vertical stripe look like? What color stripe, on what color ‘background’?

    Here in CT, all the adult male hairies I’ve seen have the black vertical stripe through the red patch, though the black stripe is very thin, almost like a “hairline” stripe. The juvenile males (and some females) have the yellow or orange crown patch; I’ve not noted the stripe on the young birds, but it’s something I’ll look for later this summer.

    Head shape is another good distinguishing mark – Hairy has a higher, pointed crown; Downy has a flatter crown, more like the crown flows into the neck.

    The hairies at our feeders announce themselves with loud PEEK! PEEK! PEEK! while the downies come and go quietly.

    1. Thanks for all the comments so far – very helpful! I assume the “vertical stripe on a female Downy” means a black stripe connecting the crown and nape, and I’ve heard from a couple of people that the pattern on females is more variable than on males, but it might still be fairly reliable and is worth studying.
      Already we have confirmation of this difference in males from the East (Dan Lane and Sarah), and Pacific (Sandy), and “partial” confirmation from the Rocky Mountains (BirdingisFun) which covers the major subspecies groups of these birds. I’m looking forward to hearing more. And next I will have to take a close look at head shape – thanks for the tip Sarah.

      1. Katherine Clemo

        I saw an adult female downy at my feeder today with two juveniles. One, obviously a male, already had a red patch on the back of his head. A couple of weeks ago, he still had the reddish area on top of his head and no spit on the back of his head. The other juvenile had no red spot on the back of its head, but the area around its bill was a definite pink and there was pink coloration on its breast. Is this “normal”? Also the other juvenile kept aggressively chasing her (?) every time she came near the suet. Thank you.

  4. Kevin J. McGowan

    The markings on the back of the heads of Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are quite individually variable. I can distinguish at least 5 female Downies coming to my feeders at the moment on that character alone. The white is usually broken by a vertical black mark of varying width, but some have complete white rings. Males appear less variable because the red feather tips conceal whether the feather bases are white or black. I suspect the variation in black and white is about equal.

    I posted something about this topic at quite a while ago (wow! that long ago? humbling). I now have enough Hairy Woodpecker photos that I need to revisit the idea.

    Definitely something fun to look at. Who knew so many different individuals came to the same feeder?

    Kevin J. McGowan
    Ithaca, NY

  5. Hi David and all,

    I second Kevin’s observation on the variability of female Downy’s nape spots (that is, the patch of feathers which in males is red): in NJ, I was able to verify that there were individuals with white napes and others with black napes coming to my feeders. Here in the SE, it seems that black-naped birds are perhaps a bit more common, but I haven’t been keeping track as carefully.

    On the other hand, Hairy females seem only to have black nape spots. I have yet to see one that does not.

    I should note, too, for those who are checking out male Hairies for the nape spot pattern, that the pattern can be obscured by their feather attitide. That is to say: if the bird’s crown and nape feathers are sleeked back and compressed against the head, the nape pattern is easy to see, but if the feathers are fluffed (when excited or cold, for example), the black divider may be obscured from most viewing angles except from directly behind.

    Since we’re on the topic of woodpecker plumage variation: I have also noticed that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers molting into first basic plumage (females only based on specimens here at LSU) occasionally have all-black foreheads or with only one or two red feathers, usually just above the nasal tufts, whereas most molt in red and have a fully red forehead in their first basic plumage. We have specimens from as late as April, since most of our series is from the SE USA and Middle America, it is not clear if birds retain this through the summer (based on our specimens). Interestingly however, using NAB (#662), I found that this issue was first published by Kilham 1977 (Wilson Bulletin), who noted breeding females with black or mostly black foreheads. Thus, it seems that there is a black-foreheaded morph of female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that has not really been addressed in field guides. Anyone know anything more about this plumage?

  6. I became alert to the black stripe on male Hairy Woodpeckers as a result of a feeder bird count in the St. Croix River valley on the MN-WI border. One Hairy had a broad black stripe dividing a red patch that was markedly faded, not bright red. Another male Hairy had what appeared to be a bright, all-red nape, but on close inspection, there was a very narrow black line dividing the red patch into two. A colleague subsequently took rear aspect photos of three male Hairy Woodpeckers at his own feeder, and all had a black stripe to some degree – as Kevin notes above for Downies, the differences are sufficient to permit identification of birds as individuals.

  7. Thanks to Dan for bringing this up! Some friends and I noticed the stripe on male Hairies when we were kids so we wrote an ID article on Downy/Hairy for A Bird’s-Eye View. I’ve honestly checked every male Hairy I’ve seen well in the east since then and never found an exception (this would mostly be Ohio, Missouri, and Massachusetts). On some birds the red can be somewhat limited so that it looks like the red is just on the back end of the white supercilium and the nape is mostly black. And as Dan points out, it’s definitely affected by feather arrangement.

  8. I have noticed this pattern of a black vertical stripe between the red on the nape of male Hairy Woodpeckers and unbroken red on Downy males for several years now and at least birding here in Illinois I have yet to encounter an exception.

  9. David, Jan and I recently watched a male hairy woodpecker at a feeder in Portland, Oregon. The bird had a very small amount of black mixed into the top middle of the red on the nape, but there was not a complete black bar dividing the red. Previous posts have indicated that the black bar may be very thin or may only be visible from directly behind the nape, but, on this bird, there was no line, even from directly behind. It was a cold day and perhaps the nearby red feathers were fluffed up and concealing the black.


  10. Yesterday I went skiing at Snow Summit in East of LA in the San Bernardino Mountains. I got three very good pictures of a male woodpecker. It has a solid red patch on the back of its head, a larger white patch on the sides of the neck and a short beak. I think that it is a male downy but there is a variation that I haven’t seen mentioned. It has a large white spot on its back with solid black wings. Is it possible that they where not visible because it was eating? Or is this a local subspecies variation?

    1. That sounds like the local subspecies of Downy Woodpecker. In the west they have small or no white spots on the wing coverts, so the wings look all black and the overall impression is very different from the eastern birds.

  11. David,

    Since this issue was brought to our attention, many of us will be checking it out. I must add, however, that there are a whole lot of male Hairy Woodpeckers out there with solid red nape spots, without a bisecting black line and with no intruding black at all. Checking my slides of Hairy Woodpeckers, taken in Oregon from both sides of the Cascades — representing at least two different races — those birds in the right position to show have a complete red patch. Also, checking Hairy Woodpecker images online, many birds appear to have complete or nearly complete red patches.

    This could be variable, or it could be a matter of feather wear. The black line could be underlying the fresh red feathers, only to surface with wear. I would think there are enough specimens to check this out.

  12. Just came across this article this morning, April 20, 2016 – wow – 5 years after you originally posted it. A couple hours later on a trail outside Flagstaff AZ, a male hairy woodpecker near ground level on a trailside pine not 30 feet away gave me easy viewing. It had a complete red nape patch, no vertical black stripe bisecting the red like you report for Mexican Hairies. I’ll keep checking for variations.

  13. The easiest way for me to differentiate between Downey and Hairy woodpeckers is a simple mnemonic device. Of the two species the Downey is the smaller (not much use unless they happen to be side by side or you have already seen each type and can tell at a glance what you remember seeing.) The Downey also has the shorter beek that the Hairy. Again shorter than what? I needed an on the bird device to measure “shortness or longness” The Downey’s beak is shorter proportional to the distance from the back of the beak to the back of the head of the bird. The Hairy’s beak is about the same length as the distance from the back of the beak to the back of the head. Thus, the Downey is the dinky bird with the dinky beak.

  14. Currently have FIVE Downey’s on our tree, then a Hairy showed up, plus a revolving door of Red Bellies. I wonder how they know to mainly only fight with the other Woodpeckers? We have 15 species of birds out there, plus a dozen squirrels, but the Woodpeckers go after each other like crazy. At first it was just the Downey’s, but then this Hairy, and another. They have been super aggressive, but only with the other Woodpeckers. Just watched 6 of them among 50 other birds, only attacking themselves. So odd.

  15. An interesting note about Hairy, I recently had a look at the Costa Rican ssp. and the males had a solid red patch versus the broken red and black

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