Mistaken Identity

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Photo by Joan Heffernan
The easiest way to differentiate the two woodpeckers is their bill length. The hairy woodpecker’s bill is nearly the same length as his head, and the downy’s bill is about one third of his head length.

There are two woodpeckers who frequent feeders around town, and they look a lot alike. Our downy and hairy woodpeckers are both black and white with similar markings on their bodies. The males have a red patch at the nape of the neck, and there are only a few ways to tell the two species apart. The first is their size; the hairy is a much bigger bird, more the size of a cardinal while the downy is smaller, closer to the nuthatch in size. Also if you look closely the hairy has a longer beak, and the downy has a tuft of feathers near where his beak meets his head. But it can be challenging as most often the birds are not sighted together so scale can be tricky. They don’t sit still for long as they traverse up and down the trees when they are not undulating in flight across the yard. I have participated in conversations around town trying to figure out which woodpecker is on the suet cake on our maple. Usually if I wait a bit another bird will join the scene at the feeder, and the comparison helps us to winnow down the relative size and make a better ID.

I have looked into the reasons behind these birds looking so alike and the thinking has changed. A recent article on the Audubon web site mentioned that woodpeckers tend to be more dominant than other species and they sure are feisty at the feeder. Along these lines, a downy may benefit by sharing the hairy’s look and thus glomming onto his size and influence. The folks at Audubon are currently testing this theory by building a huge enclosure to observe woodpecker behavior and I would love to see that! But, at any rate mistaken identity does happen!

And for some reason, when I think of mistaken identity I am reminded of a period of time when my eldest had just gotten her license. She was a bit of a handful and hounded us about letting her drive to school. We acquiesced and let her use the family clunker which happened to be a white Ford Explorer that had a lot of miles and a fair amount of rust that we had carefully disguised. So off she went to school every morning, radio blasting on full volume, and she returned in the afternoon with the music even louder. Around this time my dad bought a new model of the same car in the same color. And if you didn’t look too closely, you might think he was driving the same car as our daughter. This scenario began to play out spring semester when our daughter’s morning commute to class coincided with my dad’s morning pilgrimage to campus to walk his dog. So, two white Ford Explorers would arrive at the same moment to head down the hill. Now my dad had a bit of a lead foot, so he usually would be careening down the hill airborne over any speed bumps. Well this was all good and fun until the school administration took to watching these antics and were quickly assumed that this reckless driving must be our teenage daughter and could never be a dodderly old grandpa. So one thing led to another, and our daughter racked up many hours in detention to make up for her alleged risky driving behavior, and according to her she was marred for life. My dad was oblivious, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. He probably continued to careen around town in various vehicles for many decades long after his granddaughter took the heat for him. Looking back, I am pretty sure our daughter was up to something which would have warranted a few sessions in detention so I like to view the whole thing as a character-building life lesson, and I am sure my dad would agree.

Thinking back to the downy woodpeckers, I am not so sure the resemblance of my daughter’s car to my dad’s was adaptive, especially when there was a role reversal in terms of driving with the more mature and dominant driver acting more like the teenager. You just never know, maybe we needed a huge enclosure to test out the competing drivers as they demonstrated what they were made of behind the wheel. Sounds like fun.

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