The hairy woodpecker is the other with such a broad range. Actually, the hairy’s range is somewhat broader since the hairy occurs farther south, into Mexico.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are look-alikes, both similarly patterned in black and white. Males of both sport a red patch on the back of the head. But a downy woodpecker is smaller, less than seven inches long, while a hairy is over nine.
That’s a difference in length of just an inch and a half and that’s difficult to judge. Is that little black and white bird on the bark of that tree over there six and a half inches long or nine? If there is no other bird nearby to judge by, forget about the overall length and judge by its bill. A hairy’s bill is a typical woodpecker’s, long and stout, approximately as long as the thickness of the bird’s head front to back. A downy’s is a little stickpin, only about half the thickness of its head.
If the bird is flying away and you can’t see its bill, look at its tail. Both downy and hairy have white feathers on the sides of their tails but a downy has black spots on the white, a hairy does not.
Our son and daughter-in-law have both downy and hairy woodpeckers coming to their bird feeders. On those occasions when there are both downy and hairy at or near the feeders they have an easy time distinguishing. Even when only one is present they can judge its size by the size of their feeders. We’re not that fortunate. We have never seen a hairy woodpecker at one of our feeders.
That brings up something else. If you see a downy or a hairy woodpecker and you’re not sure which, if you say you think it’s a downy, you’ll be right more often than not. Downy woodpeckers are much more numerous, more common than hairys.
Both downy and hairy woodpecker, all woodpeckers, feed on insects, ants, beetles, and their larvae, all picked from the bark of trees, on, in and under the bark.
To stick to the bark, to hammer at it with their bills, to extract insects from holes in the bark, often holes they create with their bills, woodpeckers have strong, sharp pointed bills and the muscles to hammer with them. They have long tongues with barbs on the sides. They have two toes to the front, two to the back, a condition called zygodactyl, which makes it possible for them to cling easily to the vertical trunk of a tree. They have stiff tail feathers and use their tails as props. With their tongues woodpeckers probe cracks and crevices and holes, stab insects and their larvae, then draw out the insects, which can’t slip off because of the barbs.
Woodpeckers, including downy and hairy, also eat some fruit. They eat the berries of dogwood, serviceberry, Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Downys also eat corn. But the insects they eat, the pleasure they provide picking at the suet we put out more than makes up for the little damage they do to apples and corn.