Lovely look-alikes

Learn to distinguish the downy woodpecker from the hairy woodpecker
The mother showed up first, but she was soon bringing a young woodpecker with her. It was June of last year when the little black and white birds started frequenting our yard. The mom would visit the bird feeder occasionally, but she spent most of her time on the large oak limbs nearby, showing the juvenile woodpecker how to get food and, on several occasions, feeding the young bird directly.  
 
Watching that was quite a treat. I knew about these look-alike species, but I had to research how to tell the downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker apart.
 
One can disregard the names for any help in identification. The downy woodpecker has no down and the hairy woodpecker has no hair.  
 
I could almost hear comedian Steven Wright speaking in his monotone. “Sponges grow in the ocean. That just kills me.”  And, “Why do we park in the driveway and drive on the parkway?”  
 
He would have a ball with these bird names.  
 
Fortunately, there are ways to discern whether a bird is a downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) or a hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus.)  And these birds were spending lots of time close enough to our dining room windows to sort the details out.
 
Both species are very similarly colored. They are black and white with spots on their mostly black wings and with black and white stripes on their cheeks. Adult males also have small red caps on their heads. Both birds also inhabit most of North America year-round, including all of the southeastern United States. 
 
But three characteristics are typically enough to tell the two birds apart.
 
The first is size. The hairy woodpecker is a robin-sized bird, while the downy woodpecker is described on the website allaboutbirds.com as being about “two-thirds the size” of its larger cousin. Depending on the range and the background, this factor alone may or may not be definitive. Some birders have gone so far as to paint “rulers” on their feeders to measure birds’ lengths.
 
Second, the substantial bill of the hairy woodpecker is nearly as long as its head. But the beak of the downy woodpecker is perhaps half that long and appears to be almost stubby.
 
Finally, if one can get a side or upward view of the bird, the outermost tailfeathers are a good clue. While these feathers are purely white on a hairy woodpecker, they are barred or dotted with black spots on the smaller downy variety.
  
I was able to determine from these three characteristics that our visitors were definitely downy woodpeckers.
 
Downy woodpeckers eat mostly insects. But while beetles, ants, and caterpillars comprise three quarters of their diets, they also eat berries, grains and seeds.  
 
These birds have even been seen drinking from hummingbird feeders. Both sexes build their nests together. The pair will make a hole in dead wood, six to twelve inches deep and lay three to eight eggs once per year. They have even been found nesting in the walls of buildings. In the wild, downy woodpeckers have been verified by banding to live for at least 11 years.
 

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555

 

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