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I will cut to the chase here, as this month’s quiz is obviously (well, it’s obvious to me, anyway) either a Downy Woodpecker or a Hairy Woodpecker. The other reasonable possibilities – sapsuckers and the other Picoides woodpeckers – all have extensive dark markings on, at least, the sides/flanks. (Yes, White-headed Woodpecker has sides/flanks with more than just black markings.)
My primary reason to using this picture for the quiz was to make myself finally buck up and figure out some difference in the face patterns of the two species. While someone out there may have figured it out, I hadn’t. Unfortunately, after hours and hours of staring at illustrations and a huge gob of pictures on Flickr, I still see nothing that reliably separates Downy and Hairy woodpeckers face patterns. Oh, there are a few features that are at least a bit suggestive, such as the tendency for Hairy to have at least some dark separating the nasal tuft from the white malar stripe, while Downy rarely, if ever, shows such. Hairy Woodpecker tends to have narrower lateral throat stripes than does Downy, but with only the slimmest such stripes being a good indicator of Hairy.
The ratio of length of the nasal tuft to bill length is an excellent character, with Downy’s bill typically being less than 1.5x the length of the nasal tuft, while Hairy’s is more than 2x the nasal-tuft length. But, I used this picture because bill length is obscured in it, thus forcing us to look elsewhere.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the plumage color and pattern in these two species is the fact that they clearly illustrate impacts by habitat. In the eastern subspecies of both species, the underparts are white and the wings are heavily marked with white. In the Rocky Mountains, both species show a great reduction in wing spotting, while in the Pacific Northwest, both species have replaced most areas of white plumage in Eastern birds with variably brownish coloration and, like the Rockies birds, reduced wing spotting.
Anyway, we are just going to have to look at our quiz bird’s undertail coverts and outer tail feathers. Though many birders know this good ID trick, I keep being surprised by the number of birders that don’t know it. Downy sports black spots/streaks on the lateral undertail coverts and black bars on the white outer tail feathers. Beware, though, that these markings are so light and/or restricted in some individuals that they are difficult or impossible to discern under field conditions. However, if there are noticeable dark marks on the undertails coverts and outer rectrices, the bird is not a Hairy!
I took this picture of a Downy Woodpecker at Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park, Sanilac Co., MI, on 17 March 2014.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the December Bird Photo Quiz—Downy Woodpecker:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.