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Downy and Hairy

When we started The Burgess Bird Book, I just couldn’t wait to get to Chapter 11, Drummers and Carpenters. I knew that’s where Peter Rabbit would learn the difference between a Hairy Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker. I fought the temptation and was able to wait patiently for the day when we would read it aloud as a family. I was not disappointed. Peter Rabbit learned how to tell the difference and so did I (and my children, of course 😂).

Armed with my knowledge and situated in front of the window to watch our suet feeder, I saw it myself. Have you ever wanted to tell the difference?

Form 1, Grade 3 Student

The tricky thing for most people is when you realize that both Hairy and Downy males have red patches on their heads and look exactly the same with black and white feather patterns. However, there are some striking differences between them. The first is their size, which may be hard to tell when you spot them separately. Hairy woodpeckers are considerably larger than Downy woodpeckers.

“Just then Downy flew away, but hardly had he disappeared when another drummer took his place. At first Peter thought Downy had returned until he noticed that the newcomer was just a bit bigger than Downy. Jenny Wren’s sharp eyes spied him at once.

‘Hello!’ she exclaimed. ‘There’s Hairy. Did you ever see two cousins look more alike? If it were not that Hairy is bigger than Downy it would be hard work to tell them apart. Do you see any other difference, Peter?'”

The Burgess Bird Book, Thornton W. Burgess, Living Press edition, p. 53

Do you want to know the other difference that Jenny Wren taught Peter?

Downy or Hairy, what do you think?

The other difference is in their tails. Speaking first of Hairy, Jenny Wren instructs:

“Look at the outside feathers of his tail; they are all white. Downy’s outside tail feathers have little bars of black.”

The Burgess Bird Book, pp. 53-4

If you look very closely above at the woodpecker on my suet feeder, you’ll see he has a few black bars on his underside white tail feathers. We have positioned a suet feeder right by our kitchen window to see the difference even better. And now we delight in being able to tell with certainty what kind of woodpecker we have spotted that day. Now that I make my own suet, we see the Downy Woodpeckers very often, and Hairy comes at least once a day. And he is certainly larger than his smaller cousin.

For more fun with birds, check out our Burgess Bird pages:

Until next time, keep birding! <3 Kate

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