Perplexing Plumage – Hairy vs Downy Woodpeckers

A flash of white streaks by and alights on a nearby stump. You spin, and place your binoculars on a small white and black woodpecker. It’s either Hairy or Downy, but do you know which? This question is a common one for beginning and novice birders across the continent, as these friendly little chaps will come to almost any feeder – suet, sunflower, peanut – for at least a short visit.

Identification can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know much about the two. Hairy is bigger than Downy, but in the field, this can be difficult to judge accurately, so how do you do it?

In the two above photos, (click to enlarge) you can see the key mark between them – the bills. On the Downy Woodpecker, the bill is a short projection of about one third the length of the head, where the Hairy has a big, thick bill, almost entirely the length of its head. Another interesting feature is the black shoulder mark on the Hairy – if you look closely, most Hairy Woodpeckers have a comma shaped black mark protruding from the back over the shoulder and sometimes on to the breast. Downys almost never have such a mark, but occasionally they can show something similar, so keep an eye out!

Downy on suet feeder.

Downy on suet feeder.

One final useful tool  is the call. As the name suggests, Downy Woodpecker’s rapid fire “dododododododo” slips DOWN the scale towards the end, decrescendo style, while a Hairy’s call stays level or even goes up at the end.

So next time you’re out, take a long look at the local woodpeckers, and try to identify them. Take photos if you can – a snapshot never flies away! – before watching it. Downys especially can be quite tame, and may even land on your hand if you train them. Why not try it? Take your kids out, enjoy nature and provide a cool experience that may start them off on their birding career.

Other Perplexing Plumages:

Mallard or Gadwall?

Molt and Eclipse

Song vs Lincoln’s Sparrows

One Snowy Day…

Our annual Snowy Owl hunt is always one of my favourite birding trips of the year, and this year’s hunt was by far the best yet. It’s a laid back, quiet trip, a single day’s drive out from the mountains to the area east of Calgary, and back through the city. This year, I had set the ambitious goal of 18 ‘target’ species – Snowy Owl obviously coming first, with 15 supporting highlights and two stunners which would steal the show.

We (me and my father) set out at 6:45 AM, heading to Millarville for Wild Turkeys (see 2015) at the crack of dawn. Cruising down the road, we reached the lot where the birds roost, only to find the big birds had already fled the scene. This disappointment was somewhat remedied by the appearance of five moose – one a baby!

moose baby

Young Moose

With that, we headed east, towards the land of hawks, eagles and owls. Quickly hitting a duo of Rough-legged Hawks (a year bird for both of us), we held high hopes for the remainder of the day, but as it turned out, these were the only two hawks we were to see that day. A strange place known as the “Eco Ag Facility” produced two hundred Common Ravens, 20 American Crows, and two Bald Eagles, as well as Starlings, Pigeons and Magpies. Why this was, we could not ascertain, as other, similar locations held no such bounty.


Common Ravens

High River produced it’s now popular Common Grackle, but the real surprise was a pair of Hot Air Balloons – both observations unusual in January.

Hot Air Balloons

Hot Air Balloons

Frank Lake was the obvious next stop, looking for recently reported Prairie Falcon and Hoary Redpolls. Sadly, neither of these species showed, but we did find twenty Grey Partridge and some Horned Larks at Basin Four.

Horned Larks

Horned Larks

G. Partridge

Grey Partridge

No Snowies yet. It wasn’t totally surprising, but we were hoping for a few and there was only one more area to check over. Between Strathmore and Beiseker is historically a very good area for Snowy Owls, so we sped on up north, and before long, We spotted one perched on a distant fence post. It’s a very white owl – a male, with almost none of the female’s black barring.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

This was a pleasing find, midway through the day, but our second owl came very soon afterwards – a Great Horned, this time! Near the owl, a flock of 35 Snow Buntings fluttered around – another of the passerines of the target list. The biggest shock, and probably the best bird of the day came only half an hour later.

We had just left the flatlands, and were headed into Calgary, our thoughts turning to the water fowl of Carburn Park when we saw a bird atop a power pole on the entrance to the city. Initially dismissing it for a Raven – its back turned, against the sun – was a nonetheless an unforgivable mistake, for as we passed the bird, another glance was enough to send us screeching to a halt. A streaked raptor, like an immature accipiter, but too big, too bulky. There was only one thing this powerful form could be – a bird recently listed as sensitive by eBird – a bird you could no longer track down via reports. A Gyrfalcon.



I have only seen one other of this most stunning member of the falcon family, and this was the best of views. The bird launched itself off the pole, and whizzed along the fence line, parallel to our car. It was gone in a few seconds, but it left a lasting impression on me, reaffirming the species as my favourite falcon.


Gyrfalcon fly-by

What can I possibly say about such a wonderful bird? I hadn’t stopped thinking about it by the time we reached Carburn, and even the finding of the over-wintering Red-breasted Merganser didn’t fully awaken me from my dreamlike trance.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser (imm. male)

We found the three Trumpeter Swans I had missed on my last journey to the park, and all of the Redheads, Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Our final birds were the other contenders for Bird of the Day – a species which, up to July, had been my nemesis – two Short-eared Owls! Once again, however, my photos are not great – the fading post-dusk light obscures much detail.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

That wraps up this year’s Snowy Owl hunt, with 39 species across almost 400 kilometres in the day. It was a one Snowy day, with highlights of two other owls and a Gyrfalcon, but unmentioned included a Merlin, Common Redpolls, Sharp-tailed Grouse and a Ring-necked Pheasant among others. It will be hard to top this one.

Thanks for reading, and here’s to next year’s Snowy Owl Hunt!

Feathers on Friday

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings are true masters of camouflage – their patterned plumage fits in with the snow, the dead grass and rocks with which they surround themselves. There are six in the above photo, part of a flock of 500 odd I found this morning. And, just for reference, here is the original shot, at full zoom on my camera:

Full shot

Can you find the cropped section?

Other Feathers on Fridays:

Wolf Song Blog                                         Birds In Your Back Yard

Back Yard Bird Blog