Downy and Hairy at the suet feeder

We’ve had Downy Woodpeckers at our feeders since we moved to western Virginia, but this winter we started seeing their larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. I’d been waiting to catch the two males together at the suet feeder and I finally got my chance.

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

It’s easy to distinguish between the two species: the Downy is about 6 inches long with a short, stubby bill; the Hairy is robin-sized, about 9 inches long, with a bill almost as long as the bird’s entire head. Even though their ranges for the most part overlap, the shyer Hairy is found within or along the edges of deciduous forests, while the tamer Downy is more often found in woodlots, parks, and suburban back yards. Due to the considerable size difference, ecological competition between the two species (for food and nesting places) is rather slight.

The Downy is one of my favorite birds, partly because they are so people-friendly, but also because they are of the “share and share-alike” mentality at the feeder, waiting their turn while the nuthatches and other suet-lovers get a shot. I’m impressed that the Hairy, a bird that is built to go head-to-head with the aggressive and oft-obnoxious Blue Jay, is also willing to share.


38 thoughts on “Downy and Hairy at the suet feeder

  1. Thanks for a really interesting post. I love woodpeckers, we have 3 native varieties in the UK- lesser spotted, great spotted and green woodpecker, the latter 2 we get here often. I saw a tv show recently where a great spotted woodpecker was dissected, when the head was split open it showed how the tongue wrapped right around inside the skull to protect the brain from the hammering action, absolutely fascinating!

    • It’s the same with Red-bellied Woodpeckers here in the U.S. Their super-long tongue is barbed at the end and is used to feel and pierce insects hidden deep inside tree cavities. The tongue also contains paired longitudinal muscles that allow it to move side to side as the bird probes for food. Woodpeckers are amazing!

  2. I’m a big woodpecker fan, also & lucky that my suet cages attract Downy, Hairy, and the Red-bellied pairs.

    One of the most astonishing behaviors I’ve ever observed was a male Red bellied woodpecker plucking house sparrows off a feeder with his bill and tossing them to to the ground!

    After confirming the little birds were flying off unharmed, my daughter and I stayed mesmerized by that red hooded bad boy who refused to share.

    • Wow! I’ve never seen that. Guess that’s one way to get ahead of the line! Goes to show no matter how long we’ve observed birds, there’s always some “new” behavior to be seen.

  3. Had a Downy at my feeder this morning. Not used to seeing the ones with red spots on their heads. Quite a sight and your pics are also awesome. Hope you get to see the monster woodpeckers too. I think they are called peliated, maybe?

    • The males have the red on the back of the head; the females don’t so you’re probably seeing females. We have the Pileated here but they are too wary to come to come to the feeder, although there was a picture that made the rounds a few years ago of a woman who patiently lured a Pileated to her feeder and eventually tamed him to the point that he would eat out of her hand!

  4. Nice photos! Here in the Pacific Northwest, it seems like the Pileated Woodpeckers and the Northern Flickers get all the attention—more flashy and noticeable. But, it’s wonderful to see the smaller woodpeckers, too. You just have to pay more attention, listen for their pecking sounds and keep a sharp eye for them.

    • You’re right, Denise. We have the Pileated and Northern Flickers here, but for some reason, I enjoy the little Downies the most. I saw one today excavating a hole at the bottom of a stump. I’m used to seeing them up in a tree, not on the ground!

  5. again a very important post, dear Jo Ann – are there further informations about a feeder in detail and what to feed..?

  6. Oh, this is excellent Jo Ann; you have no idea how long I’ve wondered about this… Thank you!: )

    • You’re welcome, Deb. The funny thing is I learn something every time I do a post because there’s always something I’m not sure of and have to look up. As the old saying goes, “To teach is to learn twice.” 🙂

      • Then teach on Macduff and so we both shall learn!! (While Shakespeare rolls in his grave; )

  7. I’ve heard they are very vocal when you “intrude” on their space. Many birds sound off the alarm when they spot an intruder (jays and crows come to mind), and woodpeckers are no exception.

  8. I’m so glad you posted this – I need to go back through my photos and see if I have mistaken a hairy for a downy – I love the downies. Right now they seem to be swirling though the branches pairing off. Do you know if they will nest in birdhouses?

  9. Great post and photos Jo Ann. We have downey’s though I rarely see them. We mostly see Northern Flickers. Loved reading about and looking at these two species.

    • It’s the other way around here – we have Northern Flickers but seldom see them! I saw them more often when I lived in a townhouse and they came to the suet feeder – go figure. Thanks for commenting, Alison.

    • Thanks! Same with the Red-bellied Woodpecker. I once watched a face-off between a RBW and a jay. The RBW hunkered down and pointed that long bill at the jay, who decided not to pursue the matter any further and flew off.

    • Thanks, Andrea. I stop feeding the birds once the weather warms up because we have an abundance of natural foods here. Then I’ll have to walk in the woods to see my friends the woodpeckers.

  10. Hi, Jo Ann: What a coincidence – I had just finished watching a Downy at our suet feeder and came in, turned on the computer, and found your blog with a great picture of what I had just been watching (minus the Hairy!). Wonderful start for my day! Margie

  11. Hi Margie, I can’t imagine winter without the birds to brighten up my day. On another note, We bought six peeps a couple of weeks ago. They are in the house until it warms up enough for them to go outside, so I get to listen to them peeping and carrying on all day. They will start laying eggs this fall. You and Dan have to come for another visit and have some eggs “grown” onsite. 🙂

  12. Great photos, Jo Ann. Let’s see, another way to tell the Downies from the Hairys is by the dark spots or bars on the Downy’s tail feathers. If you can see them, that is!

    • We have a French door that looks out at the feeders so we can watch the activity when it’s too cold to go outside.

  13. I’m wondering if I’ve mistaken a Downy for a Hairy now that I’ve looked at your two birds. Thank you for once again teaching me something new. Super shots of the woodpeckers. 🙂

    • Thanks, Robin. Someone else said the same thing, which is why I thought it might be useful to catch the two in one picture. Seen together, the size difference is fairly striking; otherwise, it’s an easy mistake to make because they look so darned much alike.

  14. Those are great bird pictures…I love woodpeckers and enjoy watching and taking pictures of them in my yard.

    • Thanks, Chancy. Woodpeckers are extremely photogenic for some reason. The only woodpecker in our area that doesn’t come to the feeder is the Pileated, but they nest and drum nearby and we get to see a lot of them, just not as close up as the others.

      • My mumsy has a picture blog with some of her bird pictures if you would like to see it. There is a link on the sidebar of my page to her picture blog “Mag’s Corner”. We don’t have Pileated Woodpeckers in our area either. Hugs and nose kisses, Chancy mumsy’s little woofie buddy

    • I kept an eye on the feeders and was in such a hurry to get a photo of the two of them together that I almost scared them away!

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