Commonly Confused Birds

Some birds are so distinctive that they are easy to identify. Others, like the hairy woodpecker and downy woodpecker, are a bit more challenging. We'll take a closer look at several easily-confused birds that are common in Massachusetts and offer tips on how to tell them apart.


Hairy Woodpecker & Downy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpeckers (9¼”) are much bigger than downy woodpeckers (6¾”), and their beaks are considerably longer in relation to their head. Also, downy woodpeckers typically show small, dark bars or spots on their white, outer tail feathers.

How to Tell the Difference

Downy Woodpecker
 
Hairy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

  • Size: About 6¾" long
  • Beak: Much shorter in relation to head size
 

Hairy Woodpecker

  • Size: About 9¼" long
  • Beak: Nearly the same length as the head

Purple Finch & House Finch

At most feeders, a house finch is likely to be more common than purple finch. House finches also tend to be noisier than purple finches, often chirping loudly when visiting feeders.

How to Tell the Difference

Male purple finch
 
Male house finch

Purple Finch (male)

  • Body: Chunky, bull-headed and short-tailed
  • Color: Raspberry red with little or no distinct belly streaking
 

House Finch (male)

  • Body: Slim, small-headed and long-tailed
  • Color: Rose or brick red with streaks on belly
Female purple finch
 
Female house finch

Purple Finch (female)

  • Body: Chunky, bull-headed and short-tailed
  • Color: Prominent whitish stripe over and behind eye
 

House Finch (female)

  • Body: Slim, small-headed and long-tailed
  • Color: Brownish head lacking stripe over eye

Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, & House Sparrow

Sparrows are notoriously difficult to identify, but with a close look are actually quite distinctive. The chipping sparrow is actually quite unusual in Massachusetts in winter, so any sparrow with a rusty cap at a feeder is most likely an American tree sparrow. Abundantly common in urban areas, city sidewalks, and parks, house sparrow females are often seen with the distinctive, black-throated male.

How to Tell the Difference

chipping sparrow © Dick Daniels Wikimedia
chipping sparrow © Dick Daniels Wikimedia
 
American tree sparrow © Cephas Wikimedia
American tree sparrow © Cephas Wikimedia

Chipping Sparrow (male & female)

  • Head: Rusty cap, white stripe over eye, black line through eye
  • Breast: Plain, no streaks or dark central spot
 

American Tree Sparrow (male & female)

  • Head: Rusty cap, bill dark above and yellow below
  • Breast: Plain with a dark central spot
House sparrow male © Luc Viatour, Wikimedia
House sparrow male © Luc Viatour, Wikimedia
 
house sparrow female © Pheanix, Wikimedia
house sparrow female © Pheanix, Wikimedia

House Sparrow (male)

  • Head: Gray crown and rusty on back of head; conspicuous black throat
  • Breast: Plain underparts without streaks; conspicuous single white bar on the wing
 

House Sparrow (female)

  • Head: Plain brownish with dull stripe behind eye
  • Breast: Plain underparts and single white bar on wing

Sharp-Shinned Hawk & Cooper's Hawk

These two hawks regularly hunt birds visiting feeders in winter. In many areas, the larger Cooper’s hawk tends to be the more frequently observed species. Aside from its smaller size, the sharp-shinned hawk also lacks white tips on the ends of its tail feathers. In both species, the females are larger than the males.

How to Tell the Difference

Sharp-shinned hawk adult © Shawn P. Carey (Migration Productions)
Sharp-shinned hawk adult © Shawn P. Carey (Migration Productions)
 
Cooper's hawk adult © William H. Majoros, Wikimedia
Cooper's hawk adult © William H. Majoros, Wikimedia

Sharp-Shinned Hawk (adult)

  • Size: 10" - 14” long
  • Body: Slim and bluish-gray on back; rusty underparts
  • Head: Tends to be smoothly rounded, no blackish on top
  • Tail: Tends to appear square-ended without prominent white tips to end of feathers
 

Cooper's Hawk (adult)

  • Size: 14" - 20" long
  • Body: Robust and bluish-gray on back; rusty underparts
  • Head: Tends to be squarish (sometimes with crested appearance) and blackish on top
  • Tail: Tends to appear long and rounded at end with prominent white tips to end of feathers
Sharp-shinned hawk juvenile © Debbie Barnes
Sharp-shinned hawk juvenile © Debbie Barnes
 
Cooper's hawk juvenile © Alan Vernon, Wikimedia
Cooper's hawk juvenile © Alan Vernon, Wikimedia

Sharp-Shinned Hawk (juvenile)

  • Body: Slim and brown on back; heavy streaks on underparts
  • Head: Tends to be smoothly rounded
  • Tail: Appears square-ended without prominent white tips
 

Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)

  • Body: Robust and brown on back; fine streaks on chest and mid-breast
  • Head: Tends to be squarish and sometimes slightly crested; tawny in color
  • Tail: Appears long and rounded with prominent white tips to end of feathers