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By Nic.Korte

If you are familiar with Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, you know their plumage is similar enough to cause identification problems. But, I will get back to that. What about their names? Birds can be “downy,” I guess, but “hairy?” Surely, I can find out from the internet.

I found this: “The Hairy Woodpecker's name is derived from the long, filamentous white or whitish feathers in the middle of its back.” And this: “This woodpecker looks a little hairy due to small feathers on its legs, head and over the upper mandible. That is why it is called a Hairy Woodpecker.”

For the Downy, I found this story: “One day a very large white & black woodpecker was looking for the perfect tree to start his noisy pecking. He wasn’t looking where he was going and flew right into some lady’s washer. The lady hadn’t noticed and she started the washer. While the woodpecker was in the washer he shrunk. Then he was put into the dryer. The lady used Downy fabric softener. So, when the woodpecker emerged, he was as soft as a baby. That is how the Downy Woodpecker got its name.”  

Well, that can’t be right. I suppose I should go with the Cornell University website “All About Birds,” which says the Downy was named because of the soft white feathers on its lower back.” That seems reasonable because it is consistent with the naming of the Hairy.

My yard is occasionally visited by a Downy Woodpecker. It will be attracted to my suet feeder or will poke about looking for insects amidst the bark on my apricot tree. The only time I have had a Hairy Woodpecker was when a dying peach tree had a large branch clearly infested with some large burrowing grubs. For days, a Hairy Woodpecker showed up every morning and feasted.

Because the Downy is a more of a yard bird and more commonly seen, the results of the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas surprised me. Rich Levad, one of the best birders ever known in Colorado, and a huge contributor to the Atlas, asked me, “Which do you think was found breeding in more locations in Colorado, the Downy Woodpecker or the Hairy Woodpecker.” I realized the only reason for him to ask the question was if the answer was unexpected. Yes, the Hairy Woodpecker breeds in more Colorado locations than the seemingly more familiar Downy.

(Here is a Downy with a white grub in her small bill)

Here’s something more interesting. Despite their resemblance, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are not closely related. As one source notes, their “outward similarity is a spectacular example of convergent evolution.” Convergent evolution means the two species have analogous characteristics that have similar form and function. These characteristics, however, were not present in their last common ancestor. No one knows why the two species evolved to appear so alike; but it is relevant that they eat foods of different sizes and do not compete with each other ecologically.

(This Hairy Woodpecker has two insects in her bill.)

Now, telling them apart! You would think that would be easy. Hairy Woodpeckers are the size of a Robin, Downy Woodpeckers are the size of a House Sparrow. If they are nearby, identification is easy. Hairy Woodpeckers have a much larger bill, nearly the same length as the bird's head. Downy Woodpeckers have a small, chisel-like bill. Nonetheless, I’m not the only experienced birder to be fooled when trying to identify a woodpecker working high in a tree when size is difficult to distinguish. That is a good time to consider the marvel of evolution. They look so alike, but are, yet, so different.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]


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