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Downy Woodpecker

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Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker - Male

Melissa Mayntz

The smallest North American woodpecker, the downy woodpecker is also one of the most common and most readily recognized not only because of its size, but also because it will readily visit backyards and feeders.

Common Name:

Downy woodpecker

Scientific Name:

Picoides pubescens

Appearance:

  • Bill: Straight and pointed, less than half the length of the head
  • Size: 6-7 inches long with 11-inch wingspan, compact body
  • Colors: White, black, red
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. White belly, black back with prominent white patch, white spotting on wings. White eyebrow and cheek band on black head. Outer tail feathers are white. Males have a red patch at the back of the head, females have a black patch.

Foods:

Insects, insect larvae, seeds, suet

Habitat and Migration:

Downy woodpeckers are common throughout the United States and Canada but are rarer in the southern parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They can be found in most wooded areas, including near rivers and in parks and backyards with abundant deciduous trees. These birds do not migrate.

See the complete downy woodpecker range map.

Vocalizations:

The most common sound downy woodpeckers make is rapid drumming on tree trunks, branches and hollow logs to announce their territory. Other sounds include a sharp, high-pitched “pik-pik” and a shrill “whinny” with a descending tone.

Behavior:

In addition to territorial drumming, downy woodpeckers use their bills to pry and drill into bark, stems and weeds to forage for insects. They cling to trees by balancing with stiff tail feathers and will hop up and down a tree while feeding. Males are dominant over females and will chase them away from prime feeding locations.

Reproduction:

Males and females form long term loose bonds and work together to excavate nesting holes in dead trees. They raise one brood per year with 3-6 nestlings, and the parents share both incubation and feeding duties. Fledgling birds can leave the nest after roughly three weeks. Birds in southern locations may raise two broods per year.

Attracting Downy Woodpeckers:

Downy woodpeckers are attracted to areas where food is abundant. Offer beef suet in mesh bags, hanging feeders or log suet feeders to attract these birds to the backyard, and leave dead branches and trees intact to encourage nesting. Birders should avoid spraying pesticides that will remove insect food sources.

Similar Birds:

  • Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris)
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii)
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis)
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