December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’m a little slow but one day years ago when I saw a woodpecker at Promontory Point I realized there are two in the field guides that look very similar—the downy and the hairy. One is smaller but I could never remember which.
Smaller isn’t a good field sign if you haven’t seen both and you’re not sure of the relative proportions.
On a July 2018 visit to Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, two woodpeckers happened to land on opposite sides of the same feeder, facing each other. In that moment, I couldn’t miss the most obvious differences between the two, despite the similarity (mostly) of their plumage.
The downy is quite diminutive when seen across from his larger cousin, the hairy. More than that, the downy sports a delicate stub of a bill compared to the hairy’s railroad spike—the bill is almost the length of the hairy’s head.
Finally I got it. I will not have trouble identifying either again. There are other differences, but that bill is the most obvious. Now I have in mind: “downy=diminutive”—body size and bill.
As a side note, the downy is the one you’re more likely to see at your typical suburban bird feeder. I can’t be sure at this late date, but the downy is likely the one my dad fed with free suet from the local butcher.
According to Audubon, the hairy requires larger trees and is less likely to show up at suburban feeders or city parks. I’ve seen enough of them at the nature center to know that area (and their feeders) suit the hairy just fine.