NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. – On January 24, 2017, the Tweetspeak Class went on its first birding expedition to the Westminster College Field Station. It was a dreary, overcast day, so it did not yield many bird sightings. Despite this, fellow Tweetspeak correspondent Kristen Kubacka and I did record several Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and one White-breasted Nuthatch.
Based on our observations, we chose to focus our attention on the Downy Woodpecker. This is a species of woodpecker that is a resident in the woodlands of western Pennsylvania, which means it can be seen here year-round. Other woodpeckers are found here year-round, too. The Hairy Woodpecker and the Red-bellied Woodpecker can also be spotted at any time of the year. While the Red-bellied Woodpecker is easier to tell apart from the others because of its predominantly red head, the Hairy and Downy are nearly identical to the untrained eye. This is due to their plumage, or feathers, being very similar. There are small differences, but it doesn’t take an expert to identify them once you know what you’re looking for. Both birds are black and white, with spotted plumage on their wings, and a striped head. The males of the species sport a red spot on the back of their heads. David Sibley, of Sibley Guides, has discussed a way to tell these birds apart that was brought to his attention only a few years ago. The Downy “has a larger white patch on the sides of the neck.” While this difference might be hard to spot on the go, it can help with identification if you can get a good look at the bird.
For beginning birders, quick identification between these two birds may be tough. However, there are actually several other key features to look for, which may help to easily distinguish the Downy Woodpecker from the Hairy Woodpecker. One of those things is the size of their bills. According to FeederWatch.org, hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the size of the bill is a key distinguishing factor. The bill of a Downy Woodpecker is “about one-third as long as the distance from the base of the bill to the back of the head.” The bill of the Hairy Woodpecker, on the other hand, is “about as long as the distance from the base of the bill to the back of the head.” Don’t worry if you can’t get a good view of the bill to identify this bird, there are other features you can look for as well.
The size of the bird is another identifying factor. Karl Mechem of Audubon.org says, “the Downy is a little over six inches tall, while the Hairy is almost 50 percent taller.” This means that the Hairy Woodpecker can grow to be three inches larger than the Downy! Karl also compared the size of the Downy to a House Sparrow, whereas the Hairy could be compared to the size of a Robin.
While on our expedition, we noted the quick movements of the Downy Woodpeckers we encountered as they scurried up and down the tree branches. Downy’s not only like to move all around trees, but also perch on wildflowers, grasses, and on weeds, such as the goldenrod. This is where they differ from the Hairy Woodpecker. According to allaboutbirds.org, Hairy’s “never feed on weed stalks, cattails, or reeds.”
Overall, the expedition was a success. Though we didn’t end up with many sightings, it helped build our confidence in our ability to identify birds. It was a great experience and we can’t wait to get out there again and find even more species of birds!