Several woodpecker species live in Maine year-round. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are among the most common and often visit feeders for sunflower seeds or suet. Both species sport a black and white checkered pattern on their wings, with a white throat, chest, sides and belly. Males have a red patch on the back of their head. Juveniles may have some red feathers on their forehead.
Whereas most birds have three toes with two pointing forward and one back, woodpecker’s feet are “zygodactyl” with two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. Their stiff tail feathers give leverage as they grip the sides of trees. Their bills are shaped and used like a chisel to hammer holes or flake bark looking for insects. Both species have long, barbed tongues which flick into crevices, holes and tunnels for insects.
To the casual observer, these two species are virtually identical. So, how do you tell a Hairy from a Downy?
The Downy is a petite bird with a small beak. It can forage on small stems, twigs, fruit or seed clusters. The Hairy is bigger and heavier and cannot manage these acrobatic moves easily. So, where a bird is foraging may give you a clue. Also, experienced birders tell me they can identify the differences based on their calls, with the Hairy making a stronger, “Peek, peek.” The Downy’s call is a shriller, “Pik, pik.” I don’t trust my ear to hear these difference, but it is fun to try.
The best method for confidently identifying these two is by their bills. The Downy’s bill is tiny. When seen in profile, its bill is about half the length of the bird’s head. The Hairy’s bill is much larger. Its length is about the same as the length of its entire head. Of course, this trick only works if you get a good look at the bird’s profile. The good news is that these birds are easier to observe at the feeder or through binoculars than many smaller, faster moving birds.
Fill your feeder with black sunflower seeds and you are sure to find one or both of these species as regular visitors. Practice observing their beak proportions and you’ll become an expert in no time. (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org & The Sibley Field Guide to Birds mobile app.)
James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at Valentine Farm, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.