Downy Woodpecker- the little feisty woodpecker

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Female Downy
Photo by Craig Kerns
By Christine Southwick

The smallest woodpecker in North America is alive and doing well.

Because Downy Woodpeckers are barely larger than Black-capped Chickadees and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, they can access bugs on branches too small for other woodpeckers, and can make their nesting cavities in smaller trees found in second growth forests, and most urban yards. The daring males, with a red spot on the back of their heads, will go out on branch tips and treetops, but the females stay on larger branches and the trunks.

Woodpeckers are neat to watch using their stiff tail feathers to prop their body up while they tap away on trees to get at their tasty insect meals. Downys use their sticky tongues to extract those elusive bugs that they can hear moving around.

Male Downy
Photo by Craig Kerns
Their strong, specially-adapted feet, with two forward pointing toes each, and two backward pointing toes each gripping the bark, allow Downys to quickly move up, down, or laterally, or even hang up-side down on a branch. They use this ability to foil most hawk attacks by quickly darting behind a shielding branch. They then freeze and count on their black, and tan (in the Pacific Northwest) coloration to visually blend into the trunk.

Nest trees are often deciduous. The male does most excavating of the nest hole, with the female becoming more active near completion. Usually, the nest hole is located on the underside of a leaning small stub or branch. The female lays 4-5 eggs and broods the eggs during the day; the male has night duty. Downys use old holes for separate sleeping arrangements.

Juvenile Downy
Photo by Doug Parrott
Downys here are mostly residents, and have the same feeding territory all year long. Downys don’t cache food, so in the wintertime they will often forage in mixed flocks, for safety from predators and for ease of finding food. Since Downy Woodpeckers seem to readily adapt to human habitation, suet is especially well received.

Hang a suet feeder where you can see it from a window. Listen for a sharp “Pik”, and/or the diagnostic downward-sounding whinny. Look for a feisty little woodpecker with a dark bill that is shorter than the length of its head.

Grab a cup of coffee and take the time to watch a Downy eat and fly over to hitch along nearby tree branches. See if you agree that it is a REALLY cute woodpecker.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Anonymous,  August 30, 2011 at 12:15 PM  

In case readers are not aware, Christine Southwick will be a speaker at the upcoming Puget Sound Bird Fest in Edmonds, September 10. Her topic is "20 Birds You Wish Were in Your Yard". The entire event covers September 9-11, with more speakers, guided walks and field trips, exhibits, and kids activities. See the detailed schedule on the website:

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