The downy woodpecker belongs to family Picidae, from the Latin “picus” (meaning woodpecker). The woodpecker's common name, of course, derives from its habit of hammering repeatly on the wood of treees. Over 200 types of woodpeckers are found throughout the world, with 21 different kinds in the U.S. and Canada, in both evergreen and deciduous forests.
The Perky Little Downy
Downy woodpeckers are found all over North America, wherever there are trees, including open woodlands, parks and backyards. All downies require deciduous trees from which to harvest insects. They also need dead or dying trees so they have a place to chisel out roosting and nest holes. Unlike other, more reticent types of woodpeckers, downies have an inquisitive, friendly personality and quickly become accustomed to humans.
Each downy woodpecker lives on its own range of land, which is shared with another of its kind only in the spring and summer during mating and nesting time. In fall and winter, these birds become solitary again. Downy woodpeckers inhabit the same range year after year.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest type in North America, tiny in comparison to many other woodpeckers. Adults weigh only 1 ounce and measure about 6 inches from head to tail. The handsome downy bears feathers of bright white on its chest and down its back. Its black wings are checkered in such a way that they appear to be striped with white. Males display a small red patch on the back of their heads, while the same patch on females is black or white. Despite its distinctive markings, identifying the downy woodpecker can be challenging because of its close resemblance to one of its cousins, the hairy woodpecker. You can tell the two apart by comparing their sizes -- the hairy woodpecker is considerably larger than the downy -- and by noting the length of the birds' bills. The hairy woodpecker’s bill is almost as long as its head, while the downy woodpecker’s is stubby and short.
Like all woodpeckers, the downy woodpecker has a strong, sharp beak, short legs and strong feet with sharp, curved claws. Unlike other birds, woodpeckers don't often perch on a branch. Instead, you’ll see them clinging upright to a tree trunk. They are so good at climbing because their toes are specially adapted for gaining footing on vertical surfaces, with two toes facing forward and two backward. Like other members of the woodpecker family, the downy has two stiff, strong central feathers that act as a prop when the bird climbs or rests on a tree trunk. These feathers serve to brace the woodpecker as it hammers away.
All woodpeckers fly with a swooping, undulating motion -- they flap and rise in air, coast downward for a moment, then flap up again. They don’t usually fly long distances, but instead flit from tree to tree. Because they have a constant source of food from insects that hide under tree bark, most downy woodpeckers stay in their usual range through the winter. In very cold or snowy areas, however, they may need to migrate farther south.
The downy woodpecker’s diet consists largely of insects found crawling on the bark of trees, such as ants, caterpillars, beetles and beetle larvae. They are also attracted to fruits, in particular berries. During the warmer part of the year it is easy for them to find food on the surface of trees, but in colder weather they are more likely to tap the bark to locate insects hidden underneath. The woodpecker’s tongue is specially designed to ferret out tiny insects. Its tongue can reach far beyond the end of its beak, reaching into even narrow crevices and holes. The tongue is also sticky and equipped with tiny spikes or barbs near the tip to help it capture prey.
Unlike larger woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers can be seen hunting for food in smaller scrub and bushes as well as in trees. One of their favorite wintertime foods is the grubs found inside goldenrod galls. Their tiny beaks are the perfect tool for drilling into the side of the gall.
All woodpeckers, including downies, tend to be solitary in winter, but become more social when spring arrives. Their courtship calls sound like whinnying or rattle-type cries. Sometimes a male and female will drum together. They may also look at each other while swaying their heads from side to side, chasing each other and showing off. Once paired, downy woodpeckers begin to excavate a nesting cavity, quite often on the underside of an exposed dead limb. The female lays four or five white eggs at the bottom of the cavity. Downies in northern areas usually raise one clutch of eggs per season, but in warmer parts of the country may raise two.
It’s not uncommon to see downy woodpeckers join up with flocks of other birds such as chickadees in the winter. The downy woodpecker and its look-alike, the hairy woodpecker, often share same territory and even the same tree, since they don’t compete for the same food. The hairy woodpecker uses its much longer bill to chisel deeper holes in live wood, while the downy woodpecker excavates smaller holes to find insects near the surface in soft, dead branches. Both types of these woodpeckers become more territorial when nesting and raising chicks, however.
A woodpecker’s pecking serves several purposes. Besides providing the bird with a method of finding food, it’s a means for creating nest holes and also a form of communication with other woodpeckers. These birds are adapted to withstand all the pecking for which they are famous. An especially thick skull, a well-protected brain, powerful neck muscles and also strong muscles at the base of its beak all act as shock absorbers when the woodpecker is pecking. Woodpeckers’ nostrils are lined with bristly feathers to filter out dust and wood chips that fly as they excavate.
Helping the Downy Woodpecker
It's easy to invite downy woodpeckers to your yard by keeping suet feeders filled. In areas with harsh winters, a downy woodpecker with access to a suet feeder may be more likely to remain in its territory. Downies are also attracted to peanutbutter, sunflower seeds and cracked corn kernel.
Finding shelter is a bigger problem for the downy woodpecker than locating enough food to eat. The biggest favor you can do for these welcome visitors is to leave plenty of dead stubs in your trees, so that they have a place to excavate holes for roosting and nesting.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Downy Woodpecker
Birds and Blooms - Downy Woodpecker
Wild Birds Unlimited - Downy Woodpecker
Thumbnail Photo by Ed Gaillard
Hairy Woodpecker by Eric Begin
Downy Woodpecker by Bobolink
Downy with insect by Matt Elsberry
Goldenrod gall by Gordilly
Downy at suet feeder by Joel Motylinski
Downies in snag by Striving to a goal