Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

Downy Woodpecker
Jim Rosso photo



Hairy Woodpecker
Jim Rosso photo

Habitat change generally means exchanging one set of birds for another. When loggers cleared Vashon's timber back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the island likely traded one small, white and black woodpecker for another. Originally, old growth Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar covered most of the island apart from a few burned areas and some stream corridors. As that habitat disappeared in the logging, brushy thickets and early Red Alder and Big Leaf Maple sprang up to replace it where farm fields weren't plowed.

Before European-American settlement, Hairy Woodpeckers probably inhabited the old-growth coniferous woods in pretty good numbers. Now merely one or two Hairies show up each year. Downy Woodpeckers likely were rare but now breed and are found fairly common year round. The Downies like deciduous and mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. Mixed woods make probably the largest single habitat type on the island currently, so Downy Woodpeckers abound. They also readily visit suburban yards and gardens and like suet feeders, providing them with an even greater ability to expand their population. While Hairy Woodpeckers prefer coniferous forest, they may be found in mixed woods but Downy Woodpeckers remain unlikely to be seen in a purely coniferous forest. Both predominantly use deciduous trees for nest sites consisting of holes that they excavate themselves.

The two species appear remarkably similar with size being the only difference. Hairy Woodpeckers average about three inches larger than the smaller Downy Woodpecker. When one doesn't see them side by side to compare, one may look at the bill length and shape. Hairy Woodpeckers possess a thick, sturdy bill that looks at least half as long as the width of the head. Downy Woodpecker beaks consist of a very thin and short bill. Both birds have white breasts and bellies, black backs and wings with white patches and stripes and a black and white striped head. Males show a small red patch at the back top of the head.