I was watching a resident family of Northern Flickers flit between their favourite feeding areas, when to my absolute delight, another woodpecker flew over to join them.
In the West Kootenay, we have a half-dozen or more woodpeckers that either migrate through or live here permanently. Of those, the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are the most difficult to tell apart. (Their similarities probably arise by evolution since these two birds are not even in the same genus.) It is also relatively uncommon to see either bird around here, but the Hairy is more rare.
Six clues indicated my visitor was a Hairy Woodpecker.
First was size. The Hairy is 2 to 3 times as heavy as the Downy, and about 30% to 40% longer.
The Hairy Woodpecker on the stump seemed closer in size to the nearby Northern Flickers and was significantly larger than the Song Sparrow foraging nearby in the grass.
After the woodpecker flew off, I measured the stump it pecked at for food. The bird was likely about 24 cm from beak tip to tail end; clearly a somewhat large Hairy.
To make further comparison easier, here is a photo (right) of a Downy Woodpecker taken previously by Alistair Fraser. The places to look for differences between a Downy and Hairy are marked with four numbers.
1. The Downy’s bill is much shorter. The Hairy’s bill is noticeably longer and similar to the length of its head.
2. Downy usually have fluffier tufts of feathers above their beaks.
3. The Hairy’s neck has a black downwards spur; the Downy has none.
4. The white-ish lower tail feathers are dotted black only on the Downy.
This Downy also has a brighter red head patch than my visiting woodpecker, but that colour difference may be due to my father’s Downy being an older more mature male.
When my visiting woodpecker flew to a nearby low-lit tree, it had the namesake hair-like or thread-like white back feathers. It also showed white unmarked tail feathers and a reddish-ginger head patch that was split in two. Apparently a male Hairy’s red patch often splits in two, while the Downy’s does not.
Finally, despite this somewhat ginger-coloured head patch, I am confident my visitor was a Hairy (and not a disguised royal Harry off the grid in Canada!) What do you think?