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The Downy Woodpecker is one of the more common species you see at bird feeders and foraging in your shrubbery. It’s active and not as wary of people as many other avian visitors can be. The fact that it’s non-migratory means that there are plenty of chances to observe this fascinating bird. Our guide will tell you everything you need to know, including how to attract them to your yard.
|Habitat||Deciduous forests, woodlands, parks, populated areas|
|Behavior||Solitary, non-migratory, diurnal|
|Conservation||Species of least concern ¹|
|Scientific name||Dryobates pubescens|
The Downy Woodpecker is primarily black and white, which makes it easy to spot among green vegetation. The male has a bright red patch on the back of its head. Its bill is short and dagger-like, which is better for drumming. A light-colored stripe goes from its eye to its head. The Downy Woodpecker is a relatively small bird at 7 inches long and weighing a mere 1 ounce.
It is the smallest species of its kind in North America. The species is surprisingly similar to another bird, the Hairy Woodpecker¹. However, the latter is noticeably larger with a longer bill. It’s also more common in forests instead of a suburban backyard. The underside of its outer tail feathers is white, whereas the Downy Woodpecker is not. There are also eight subspecies¹ of this bird.
The Downy Woodpecker is a year-round resident in most of its range and does not migrate. Its omnivore diet undoubtedly plays a role since it will eat various foods. It’s also a frequent visitor to bird feeders. Its smaller size allows it to feed and nest in places where larger woodpeckers cannot.
The Downy Woodpecker is a North American resident with a range that extends from Canada to Mexico. It is found throughout the United States, although it is less common in the American Southwest. Its estimated range is just over 5 million square miles¹. According to Project Feeder Watch¹, the Downy Woodpecker is among the top 10 most frequently reported birds in five out of the six regions.
The Downy Woodpecker occupies a variety of habitats from open forests to farmland to backyards. The Partners in Flight Database¹ classifies it as a temperate forest generalist. It lives in various woodland types from secondary growth to aspen willow stands. It even lives in the forests of the Rocky Mountains at elevations up to 9,000 feet¹.
The Downy Woodpecker tolerates the presence of humans well. You’ll have no problems whatsoever attracting them to a feeder. This bird can also handle the cold winter temperatures of its northern habitats, thanks in part perhaps due to being a cavity nester.
Downy Woodpeckers are active birds, seemingly always on the go. You’ll see them frequently foraging in trees and bushes, climbing stealthily up and down the trunks. They will forage for insects underneath the bark during their vertical travels. Interestingly, males and females don’t feed at the same time unless it’s before the breeding season. The male keeps a close eye on its mate during this time.
These birds are monogamous and will readily defend their territories from interlopers. Their tails also play a significant role in communication. A bird may fan it out to ward off foes by making it appear larger and more formidable. It may also wave its beak around as a threat of more to come. A Downy Woodpecker won’t hesitate to chase intruders if they don’t get the message from its displays.
The omnivorous diet of Downy Woodpeckers includes various foods, from insects to seeds to suet. They’re particularly fond of peanut hearts, safflower, and sunflower seeds. You can also offer them mealworms as a readily available protein source. They’ll also take caterpillars, ants, and beetles. Males and females may differ in the types of food they eat, too.
Males and females will pair up in late winter to begin the breeding ritual. The pairs share many of the duties as monogamous mates. They’ll carve out a cavity for a nest, usually targeting smaller or diseased trees with softer wood. The female typically lays three to eight white eggs. Both sexes make a considerable parental investment in raising the brood until they fledge 3 weeks after hatching.
Downy Woodpeckers are usually easy to spot because of their coloration and year-round residence. They are diurnal and will often have some downtime during the afternoons. You’ll see them most often in trees or shrubs, although they will forage on the ground sometimes. They’ll readily take food from hopper-style or platform bird feeders. They’ll also visit suet feeders.
Surprisingly, Downy Woodpeckers don’t have a song per se, although they do have a sharp but short “pick” noise and scolding alarm calls. Listening for their characteristic drumming is the best way to locate them. It helps in the excavation of their nest. It is also a form of communication. Woodpeckers use it to mark their territories, letting other birds know that it’s occupied.
Drumming is an interesting behavior that has no ill effect on the birds. Scientists have even considered taking a page from the woodpecker’s playbook to design safer helmets and gear for football players¹. As you may expect, the volume varies with the woodpecker species, from the booming sound of the Pileated Woodpecker to the slow, short sound of the Downy Woodpecker searching for food.
Spotting the Downy Woodpecker or hearing its drumming are signs that they’re in the neighborhood. They don’t leave the characteristic calling cards of the Pileated Woodpecker with its vertical trenches in the tree trunks. You may find some marks on the exterior of your home, especially if you have wood siding.
Downy Woodpeckers are diurnal. The best time to view them is in the early morning and mid to late afternoon. They will often visit a feeder several times for short stints when they’re actively looking for food.
We can offer several tips on attracting Downy Woodpeckers to your yard. Remember that all animals are looking for the same things: food, water, and shelter.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the Downy Woodpecker as a species of least concern with its stable numbers. Its estimated population is 13 million¹. The birds have seen an uptick in the last few years after a drop in the far northern regions¹. It’s worth noting that the woodpeckers only had a 31.3% presence in 1989 compared to 61.4% in 2021.
The Downy Woodpecker is an amusing little bird that is fun to watch. Setting up a feeder to attract them is an excellent way to teach your children about wild birds. For your feeders, it’s literally a matter of filling it up and watching them come to visit. You’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to enjoy watching them with their stable population ensuring a bright future.
Featured Image Credit: Irene K-s, Pixabay
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Chris has been writing since 2009 on a variety of topics. Her motto with all of her writing is “science-based writing nurtured by education and critical thinking.” Chris specializes in science topics and has a special love for health and environmental topics, and animals of all shapes and sizes.
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