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Since my first days of bird-watching, I have had a fondness for the Downy Woodpecker. Perhaps it is because it was the tenth bird type that I added to my life list when I was just starting to bird-watch. Maybe it is because the Downy Woodpecker is my wife’s favorite bird. Possibly it’s because when I see them, with their sharp black-and-white coloring, I think they look like they are wearing snappy formal attire as they nimbly go about their business. In any case, the Downy Woodpecker is an active, hard-working little bird that I am always happy to see when out hiking, sitting in our backyard, or even just looking out the window.
Up until a few years ago, the Downy Woodpecker had a taxonomic classification of Picoides Pubescens, and might still be listed as such in some references. However, a few years ago the Downy Woodpecker (along with a few other species) was reclassified as Dryobates Pubescens. There are several sub-species of the Downy Woodpecker found in different geographical areas of North America, with just very minor variations in coloring and size among these sub-species.
How to Identify the Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest species of woodpecker in North America. They are relatively easy to spot, with their sharp black and white color scheme. Their bodies are predominantly white, contrasting with their wings, which are black with some white spotting. Their tails are also black except for the outermost side feathers, which are white with some black spotting.
Their faces have black and white stripes running front to back–a black stripe in line with their eye, with white stripes above and below, and a black cap on top of their head. Adult males will also have a distinctive red patch at the top back of their head, while females will not have this red cap. Juvenile males might also lack this red cap but may have some reddish coloring on the front top of their heads until they mature.
The coloring of Downy Woodpeckers is almost identical to that of the larger Hairy Woodpecker, but they can usually be distinguished by body size and beak size. The Downy Woodpecker is typically about six inches in length, compared to the Hairy Woodpecker, which usually measures around nine inches.
The beak of a Downy Woodpecker is much smaller in proportion to its head than that of the Hairy Woodpecker. If you are trying to distinguish if a bird is a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker, and are having trouble gauging its body size, look at its beak–if it appears much smaller in length than the size of its head, you are probably looking at a Downy Woodpecker, while the beak of a Hairy Woodpecker will be about as long as its head.
Downy Woodpeckers are also similar in appearance to a few other species of woodpecker, such as the Ladder-backed Woodpecker or Nuttall’s Woodpecker. However, these other species of woodpecker can be distinguished from the Downy Woodpecker by the prominent zebra-stripe pattern on their backs and wings (compared to the Downy Woodpecker’s wings, which are a more solid black with a few white spots).
Sometimes the first clue to the whereabouts of a Downy Woodpecker is by the sounds it makes. When out hiking, I often hear a Downy Woodpecker before I see it. The call of a Downy Woodpecker is a series of staccato “pick” notes, typically slower than the call of the Hairy Woodpecker. Downy Woodpeckers may also make a more rapid and urgent-sounding rattling call in which the “pick” notes are strung much more closely together. You might also hear the drumming sound of their beaks against wood as they forage or peck into trees in their habitat.
In flight, Downy Woodpeckers will take a wavy, undulating flight path as they dart about a forest or yard. When perched or moving around on a tree, they move in a quick, almost robotic fashion, moving in quick steps or hops, and turning their head this way and that as they survey their surroundings, on the lookout for food, other birds, or predators.
Where Does the Downy Woodpecker Live: Habitat
Downy Woodpeckers can be found across much of North America. Their geographic locations extend from the southern half of Canada (and Alaska), and down through most of the United States (except for the southwestern desert regions). They are not native to any areas in the world outside of North America.
Their preferred habitat is in wooded areas, especially forests primarily made up of deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the autumn). They also prefer forests that are near water sources (such as lakes, ponds, or streams). Downy Woodpeckers are not shy– they can often be found in suburban or residential areas like neighborhoods, parks, or greenbelts that have plenty of trees and foliage for them to forage in and around. It is not uncommon to see them visiting feeders (particularly those containing suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds).
Downy Woodpeckers typically do not migrate extensively. They tend to remain local to an area for the duration of their lifespan. Some Downy Woodpeckers might occasionally travel some distance (between lower and higher altitudes or colder and warmer areas) with the changing seasons, especially in colder regions or more mountainous terrain.
Downy Woodpecker Diet and Feeding
The diet of the Downy Woodpecker consists largely of small insects and grubs that it finds while foraging on trees or in the brush. The Downy Woodpecker will scramble around on tree trunks and branches, prying into the wood or bark and using its long tongue to get to the tiny bugs that it uncovers. Because it is smaller than other species of woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker can forage on smaller branches or plants and in cavities that other woodpeckers cannot access. Sometimes the male birds of this species will take the prime foraging spots, forcing the females to look for food in less lucrative areas.
Downy Woodpeckers will also eat some berries, nuts, and seeds, although this makes up a smaller part of its diet than insects. They are not shy about visiting backyard feeders. I can personally attest that they are particularly fond of suet–I often see them happily perched on the side of our suet feeder for a quick bite!
Downy Woodpecker Breeding
Downy Woodpeckers start looking for mates from late winter to early spring, with the breeding season typically being in the April-May timeframe. Male birds will begin establishing their territories, drumming loudly on trees or other hard surfaces to advertise their presence and hopefully attract a mate. Females will also drum on trees to make their presence known. While they are establishing their territories, the Downy Woodpeckers may act aggressively toward other each other, threatening and chasing off rivals who may be encroaching on their turf (although rarely, if ever, actually fighting).
As a male sees a female he is interested in; he will chase her in flight as part of the courtship ritual. This unusual flight, usually on warm sunny days, is sometimes called a “butterfly flight” because the Downy Woodpeckers will hold their wings high and flap them slower than normal as part of their courtship display. Once a mating pair is formed, they are monogamous for that breeding season and often end up mating for life. Downy Woodpeckers typically raise one brood of hatchlings per year.
Downy Woodpecker Nesting
Before they form mating pairs, Downy Woodpeckers will live in holes or cavities they find or excavate in trees, fence posts, or structures. They stay in their nest cavities by night and come out during the day to continue their never-ending quest for food.
Once they are paired up with a mate, Downy Woodpeckers will create or excavate a hole or cavity in a tree, structure, or fence post to create a nest for their family. They often seek out trees that are young, dead, or infested with fungus. This makes the wood softer and easier to drill into, making the work of excavating the nest cavity a bit easier (very smart!).
The male and female work together to create the nest. It can take a couple of weeks for the couple to finish building or excavating their new abode. They will sometimes even go through a few ‘false starts,’ starting a nest only to abandon it for a more favorable location that they find later on, or starting multiple nests and then settling on the one they like the most.
The entrance to the nest cavity is typically a small round hole, only slightly larger than the birds themselves. This maximizes the protection that the nest will provide from predators who might be looking to make a meal of the woodpeckers or their young. The Downy Woodpecker’s small size works in their favor in this case, allowing them to create small nests in places that larger birds or predators cannot easily get into.
When creating a cavity on an angled tree or limb, they often make the entrance on the downward-facing side, making it just a little more difficult for predators to access it. Once they have created a nest cavity to their liking, they will line it with wood chips and scraps to make it more comfy for their coming family.
This completed nest cavity is where the Downy Woodpecker eggs will be laid and incubated and where the baby birds will initially be fed and raised for the first few weeks after they hatch until they are able to go out on their own.
Downy Woodpecker Eggs
The Downy Woodpecker female typically lays anywhere from three to eight eggs, with three to five being the usual number. The eggs are plain white in color, without any spots. The eggs are less than an inch in size, and once laid, they are incubated for almost two weeks. The male and female will take turns sitting on the eggs during this incubation period.
After eleven to thirteen days of incubation, the baby birds will begin to hatch, using a sharp egg tooth on their beaks to escape from the confines of their eggs. Upon hatching, the baby Downy Woodpeckers are pretty helpless–at this stage, they have no feathers, cannot see or fly, and are not very coordinated.
For about three weeks after hatching, the mother and father will take turns sitting with the babies and gathering food for them. They also tidy up the nest cavity, taking the baby bird waste out of the nest when they fly out on food foraging runs. They also will stand guard at the entrance hole of the nest to keep out any unwelcome predators.
As the baby woodpeckers grow, they begin to get more coordination, moving around within the nest and even peeking out of the entrance hole from time to time. As they near the three-week mark, the parents will begin to feed them less and less, encouraging them to begin considering leaving the nest.
Eventually, the young birds will make their first flight from the only home they have known to that point. The parents may continue to care for them for a bit after they leave the nest, but pretty soon, they will be out on their own.
Despite the hard work and attention of the doting parents, less than half of the babies that hatch each breeding season will typically make it through their first year. Predators, weather, and other challenges are a constant reminder of how hard and dangerous it can be for a small bird in the wild.
Downy Woodpecker Population
The Downy Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker species in North America and is relatively common to see in the geographical areas where they take up residence. Birding surveys have indicated the population of this species to be relatively stable or even growing slightly over the past fifty to sixty years. Estimates place the total overall population of the Downy Woodpecker at roughly thirteen million.
Is the Downy Woodpecker Endangered?
No. The Downy Woodpecker is not considered to be an endangered species, and there is a low concern, if any, for its continued survival as a species at this time. Although deforestation and changing climates can be a danger to many species, the Downy Woodpecker actually does well in the new forests that spring up when there is a turnover of trees due to foresting, disease, or natural disaster.
They have also adapted somewhat to the presence of humans, often living close by in fence posts or other wooden structures that can be found where humans have moved in. One minor risk is the transition from wood to metal or other materials for fences and other structures, which reduces the possible areas in which the Downy Woodpeckers can excavate cavities to use as their homes.
Downy Woodpecker Habits
Downy Woodpeckers have many interesting habits and characteristics that make them a fun bird to spot and observe. They are a very nimble, active, hard-working bird (as many small birds have to be to make it in the wild). On trees, they can often be seen scrambling around the tree trunks and branches, foraging for insects in the wood or bark of the tree. When on a tree (or feeder), they use their stiff tail as a brace, forming a tripod with their two legs and allowing them to balance or brace themselves on the surface where they are perched.
The Downy Woodpecker is a common visitor to backyard feeders, particularly those containing suet, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. Many suet feeders even have a “fin” that extends down from the suet cage, providing the woodpecker with a handy surface against which to brace their tail while feeding on the suet. Unlike many other woodpecker breeds, Downy Woodpeckers are not too shy with humans and will happily feed at a backyard feeder while humans are in the area.
When you hear a Downy Woodpecker drumming, it is not necessarily doing it to excavate or create a hole or cavity. They often use this drumming as a means of communication–making their presence known, establishing their territory, or even attracting and/or communicating with mates.
This drumming sounds may give humans a headache, but not the Downy Woodpeckers. They have a form of ‘shock absorber’ in their skulls to protect them from the strain or injury (or headaches) that could otherwise come from pounding their heads against the hard surface of a tree every day.
Downy Woodpeckers also have very long tongues that are coiled inside their head. They can extend their tongues far out of their beaks, allowing them to scoop up the tiny insects they may come across in the various cavities and crevices of the trees on which they forage. These long tongues even enable them to occasionally swipe a quick sip from a hummingbird feeder!
You may often find Downy Woodpeckers hanging out in mixed flocks of several bird types, particularly in suburban areas where feeders can attract such a motley crowd of birds. In my backyard, I will often see them alongside the chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, white-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, and house finches that frequent our feeders.
Hanging out in a larger mixed group is handy for several reasons–it makes foraging a bit easier (since more bird activity can uncover more food sources) and also allows for more safety in numbers, as the other birds (particularly chickadees) will often sound a warning if danger or predators are spotted in the area.
Downy Woodpecker Predators
Like many small birds, Downy Woodpeckers have to be on the lookout for smaller predatory birds of North America, such as the American Kestrel, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, or Cooper’s Hawk. These smaller birds of prey are quick enough to be able to catch a Downy Woodpecker in mid-flight. Downy Woodpeckers will often use trees as a line of defense against these predators, dodging in among the branches to escape their clutches or flattening themselves against the tree surfaces to be a little harder to see (and grab).
Downy Woodpecker eggs or hatchlings may fall prey to predators such as snakes, squirrels, or even other larger woodpecker species like the Hairy Woodpecker, particularly if they are out in the open or in an exposed nest rather than a tree cavity. Tree cavities definitely offer more protection against these predators, with the entrance hole typically being too small to allow entry to them (except for snakes). Additionally, a parent will often be standing guard at the entrance hole, ready to heroically peck away at any encroaching predators to keep them out.
Cats, either domesticated or feral, are also a common predator of the Downy Woodpecker (and other small birds living in populated areas).
Downy Woodpecker Lifespan
The oldest documented Downy Woodpecker (determined by a bird who was caught, tagged, released, and then caught again years later) was almost twelve years old. This would definitely be an outlier– Downy Woodpeckers in the wild generally have a much shorter lifespan than that. Similar to other small birds, the Downy Woodpecker is lucky to live more than a couple of years in the wild. The median age for this species would likely be just a couple of years, with many birds failing to make it through their first year. A Downy Woodpecker that makes it to the five-year mark is very lucky (and very old, in Downy Woodpecker terms!)
Answer: Downy woodpeckers are not uncommon in forested areas, particularly near water sources. They are also found in suburban areas like neighborhoods, parks, and orchards, where there are plentiful trees and shrubs in which they can forage for food. Also, as previously mentioned, you might hear a Downy Woodpecker before you see it–listen for their pick-pick-pick call or for their loud drumming up among the trees, and then follow your ears!
Answer: Having trees, particularly deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the fall) is a big plus. Suet or sunflower feeders are a big draw for Downy Woodpeckers. A source of water (like a birdbath) is also a helpful magnet to draw them in.
Answer: Not at all. Downy Woodpeckers are quite tolerant (though still wary) of humans, particularly if there are safe food sources (like feeders) for them to visit. They are not as engaging as chickadees and nuthatches may be toward humans, but they are not as shy or wary as other woodpecker species.
Answer: These two birds are nearly identical in coloring–the best way to differentiate them is by overall body size and by the size of their beak. The Downy Woodpecker is roughly six inches in length, while the Hairy Woodpecker is about fifty percent larger, typically about nine inches in length. Body size might be tough to gauge when they are up in a tree, so you can also look at their beak. The beak of a Downy Woodpecker is much smaller than its head, while the beak of a Hairy Woodpecker will be as long as (or longer than) its head.
Answer: No, Downy Woodpeckers do not typically migrate long distances, as a rule. A Downy Woodpecker will usually live its life in one general, localized area. However, some Downy Woodpeckers (especially those in colder or more mountainous regions) may travel some distance between lower and higher elevations or colder and warmer areas with the changing of the seasons.
Answer: Look for the red cap… adult male Downy Woodpeckers will sport a bright red cap on the rear top of their head, while females do not have this marking. Juvenile males may not have this marking yet but may have some reddish coloring on their face, at the base of their beak. As they mature, the male Downy Woodpeckers will lose this red dusting on their face but gain the red cap.
- Peterson, Roger Tory. (2010). Peterson Field Guide to Birds (4th Edition). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- Roedel, Michael, et al. (2007). Compact Guide to Colorado Birds. Lone Pine Publishing International.
- Tekiela, Stan. (2021). Birds of Colorado Field Guide (2nd Edition). Adventure Publications.
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