Downy Woodpecker

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Downy Woodpecker
Picoides pubescens

The active little Downy Woodpecker is a familiar sight at backyard feeders and in parks and woodlots, where it joins flocks of chickadees and nuthatches, barely outsizing them 5-6 inches. An often acrobatic forager, this black-and-white woodpecker is at home on tiny branches. Downies are smaller than the Hairy Woodpecker. They are smallest (1 oz) version of the classic woodpecker body.

They have a straight, chisel-like bill, blocky head, wide shoulders, and straight-backed posture as they lean away from tree limbs and onto their tail feathers. The bill tends to look smaller for the bird’s size than in other woodpeckers.They give a checkered black-and-white impression. The black upperparts are checked with white on the wings, the head is boldly striped, and the back has a broad white stripe down the center.

The male has a small scarlet patch, like a red pompom, at the back of the crown. Juvenile birds display a red cap. The female lacks the red patch on the back of the head. The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots. With a wingspan of 9-11 inches. The underwing of the Downy Woodpecker is gray and white. The oldest known Downy Woodpecker lived to be at least 11 years 11 months old.

Downy Woodpeckers move horizontally and downwards on trees much more readily than most other woodpeckers. You may also see them perched atop tall weeds such as goldenrod in late summer, hammering away at a plant gall to get at the larva inside. Occasionally hops on the ground for food. Downy Woodpeckers have the undulating flight pattern typical of many woodpecker species, alternating quick wingbeats with folding the wings against the body. When having a dispute with another bird, Downy Woodpeckers fan their tails, raise their head feathers, and jerk their beaks from side to side. In spring you may see courtship displays in which males and females fly between trees with slow, fluttering wingbeats that look almost butterfly-like.

Downy Woodpeckers have a long, barbed tongue and sticky, glue-like saliva, which help it catch insects which are their main fair, including beetle larvae that live inside wood or tree bark as well as ants and caterpillars. They eat pest insects including corn earworm, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains. Downy Woodpeckers are common feeder birds, eating black oil sunflower seeds and occasionally drinking from hummingbird feeders. They also feed on weed stalks, cattails, or reeds. It will also show up after the Pileated has broken apart the suet.
In winter Downy Woodpeckers are frequent members of mixed species flocks. Advantages of flocking include having to spend less time watching out for predators and better luck finding food from having other birds around. Male and female Downy Woodpeckers divide up where they look for food in winter. Feeding habits are different. Males feed and are more active high in the trees. Females tend to feed from the middle of a tree on down. If a female tries to feed higher, the male will often chase her back to the lower levels. The Downy Woodpecker eats foods that larger woodpeckers cannot reach, such as insects living on or in the stems of weeds. You may see them hammering at goldenrod galls to extract the fly larvae inside.

On cold winter nights, Downy Woodpeckers conserve energy by lowering their body temperature by 10 to 15 degrees F. While this may seem counterproductive, “nocturnal hypothermia” probably reduces energy expenditure by as much as ten percent. These birds are mostly permanent residents. Northern birds may migrate further south; birds in mountainous areas may move to lower elevations. Downy Woodpeckers roost in tree cavities in the winter.

Downy Woodpeckers readily visit backyard feeders where suet and peanut butter are offered. Their familiar drumming rolls are commonly heard in the spring, and have awakened many when they choose a drainspout, mailbox or other metallic surface to announce their territory and attract a mate.

Downy Woodpeckers prefer open deciduous forests, although they frequent a variety of habitats including parks and back yards. Downy Woodpeckers are preyed upon by the American Kestrel, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk. Downys can be captured while in flight. Black rat snakes often prey on Downy eggs and nestlings, as do flying, red, and eastern grey squirrels. The narrow entrance to the Downy Woodpecker’s nest protects both the adults and the young from practically all predators except snakes, of which there are very few in Minnesota.

Like most woodpeckers, the Downy is a climber. Its short legs and two toes pointing forwards and two backwards on each foot give the bird an excellent grip for climbing. It climbs by propping its stiff, sharply pointed tail feathers against the support while shifting its leghold. With its body close to the trunk or branch and its head bobbing, the bird "hitches" upwards, backs down spiraling, and nimbly darts sideways at incredible speed.

As the smallest North American woodpecker, the Downy can drill cavities in dead trees or limbs that measure as little as 10 cm around. This means that it can live in a wider range of habitat than can larger woodpeckers, which require bigger trees in which to create their nests. The Downy’s small size enables it to hunt along the upper branches of trees, while the larger, heavier woodpecker species concentrate on more solid areas such as the trunk. During the winter a pair of Downy Woodpeckers may do a thorough job of ridding an infested tree of tiny scale insects. With its sharp bill boring small round holes or prying open the insects’ hiding places, the woodpecker fetches out food with its long agile tongue. Often the birds spend most of the daylight hours going over areas of good yield in the same trees, until they retire just before sunset, each to its own sleeping hole in the trunk of a tree.

As early as February or March a Downy Woodpecker pair indicate that they are occupying their nesting site by flying around it and by drumming short, fast tattoos with their bills on dry twigs or other resonant objects scattered about the territory. The drumming serves as a means of communication between the members of the pair as well. Downys also have a variety of calls. Click for Downy Woodpecker sounds.


Downy Woodpeckers breed during the first breeding season following the year they were born. They usually form pairs in early spring and will often return to the same nesting area of approximately 2 ha every year of their adult life. Male and female Downys usually occupy separate sleeping holes in the trunks of trees, and they may even select the same sleeping holes they had excavated in an earlier season.

During the breeding season Downy Woodpeckers defend their territory against other Downys that trespass. Encounters with intruders result in hostile displays: the opponents parade in front of each other in threatening poses, with bills gaping and wings raised and fully opened, the birds twisting and turning like small windmills. The Downy male engages the male trespassers and the female the females, while their respective partners look on. These demonstrations may continue for several hours but seldom end in actual fighting. Usually the intruder is chased away or simply disappears.

After establishing their territory, the Downy pair look for a suitable tree in which to excavate their nest cavity. They are especially attracted to dead trees or stubs dotted with old holes from former nestings. They may start several holes in different trees before the final choice is made, usually by the female. The entrance hole is round and is usually from 3.6 to 9.0 m above ground, although it may be higher or lower.

The pair require about two or three weeks to excavate their nest hole, which measures from 12 to 15 cm wide and about 20 to 30 cm deep. The entrance is through a short narrow neck at the top.

The male does most of the drilling. He spends nearly half of the daylight hours each day working on the hole in average sessions of about 20 minutes, resting and feeding in between. First he chisels out the passage, making it just wide enough for himself and his mate to squeeze through. Laboriously he taps and digs out the walls of the cavity, widening and deepening the room inside and throwing the loose chips out over his shoulder. When the hole is deep enough to allow him to turn around inside, he brings the chips out in his bill and scatters them with a shake of the head. After that, he usually sleeps in the cavity at night.

The female occupies herself flying around, feeding, and chasing intruders. When the nest hole nears completion, she becomes more interested in it and begins to work on it diligently. The two devote most of their free time to courtship involving calling and drumming, pursuits, and displays.

The female Downy Woodpecker usually lays four or five white eggs and occasionally six or seven. During the egg-laying, the male and the female take turns guarding the nest by sitting in the doorway.

When the birds begin incubating, or warming, the eggs, they take turns sitting on them during the day in shifts lasting from 15 to 30 minutes. Most changeovers take place at the nest. At night the male remains on the eggs alone while the female sleeps elsewhere. In this manner, the eggs are covered nearly all of the time during the Downy Woodpeckers’ 12-day incubation period.

When the young woodpeckers hatch, May to July, depending on the part of the country, they are tiny helpless creatures, almost naked, sprawled at the bottom of the cavity. They weigh about 1.6 g, a weight that may more than double in the first day. For a few days the parents warm the nestlings as they did the eggs and occasionally bring them small insects for food.
As the nestlings grow, the parents gradually stop brooding, or keeping them warm, and they spend more time collecting food for their young. When the parent arrives at the nest with food in its bill, there is a swell in the nestlings’ chippering noises. The parent dives headfirst into the cavity and touches the corner of a nestling’s mouth with its beak. As the mouth springs open, the parent pushes the meal down the nestling’s throat. And while the nestling subsides, the parent picks up a fecal sac, or dropping, and flies away with it.

In this way, the nestlings are fed and their nest is kept clean until they are 17 or 18 days old, when they are almost fully grown. They look like their parents, except that the crowns of the young males are tinted red or rust-red or pinkish, and those of the females are striped or dotted with white. The young ones are now able to crawl up the walls of the cavity and take turns sitting in the doorway, looking out. To meet the nestlings’ increasing demands for food, the parents bring large meals about every three minutes. Each of four nestlings is therefore fed four or five times an hour.

As the time approaches for the young to leave the nest the parents slow down the feedings, making the nestlings livelier and hungrier. The nestling in the doorway pops in and out with great vigour and calls loudly, but it is in no hurry to leave the nest. Almost a day passes before the fledgling, now as large as its parents and spotlessly clean, pops out far enough to spread its untried wings. Its first flight is usually to the nearest tree, where it often remains motionless for about an hour.

When the fledglings are all out, they hide among the green leaves in the tall trees and call for the parents to come and feed them. Within a week they follow their parents in search of food. The parents also continue to feed them, bringing them such things as fat grubs, often as big as the fledglings’ own heads. At the age of three or four weeks the young birds are fully capable of looking after themselves. However, it is at this stage in the life cycle that mortality is greatest, when the young are out of the nest and no longer protected by the vigilance of their parents.

The adult birds begin to moult their worn and dirty plumage while the young are still in the nest. The strong, central pair of tail feathers is moulted, or shed and replaced, only after all the other tail feathers have been replaced. This ensures that the woodpecker’s climbing ability is not hampered during the moulting period. The complete moult takes about two months, during which time each bird keeps much to itself, resting and feeding. When the moult is over in September, the Downy Woodpecker emerges with the white part of its fresh winter plumage showing a faintly yellow tinge that eventually is lost by wear.

The young Downy Woodpeckers also shed their juvenile plumages. Their moult starts in the summer and usually ends in full adult plumage by late fall. Their crowns are jet black, and at the back of the head the young males wear the bright red spot of the adult.

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