The Downy Woodpecker is an energetic bird that is considered as the smallest of North America’s woodpeckers. It is commonly found in backyard feeders and in parks and woodlots, where it accompanies groups of chickadees and nuthatches. Known to many as an ‘acrobatic forager’, the Downy Woodpecker is comfortable standing on tiny branches or balancing on tiny plant galls, sycamore seed balls, and suet feeders. It closely resembles the Hairy Woodpecker.
Downy Woodpeckers are little forms of the typical woodpecker body plan. As a matter of fact, they are considered the smallest woodpeckers, having a total length of between 5.5 to 7.1 inches and a wingspan of 9.8 inches to 12.2 inches. Their body weight ranges from 0.71 to 1.16 ounces.
They have an unswerving bill that looks like a chisel, a blocky head, broad shoulders, and linear-backed posture as they slowly recline from tree limbs and onto the feathers in their tail. The bill appears smaller for the bird’s size compared to that of other woodpeckers.
Their upperparts and wings are primarily black, with a white back, throat and belly, and white marking on the wings. A white bar is found above and below the eye. Their generally black tail is coupled with white outer feathers that are barred with black. Adult males exhibit a unique red spotting on the back of he head. Young adults, on the other hand, show a red cap.
Distribution and Habitat
The preferred habitat locations of Downy Woodpeckers are open woodlands, especially among deciduous trees and brushy or weedy borders. They are also often observed in orchards, city parks, backyards, and vacant lots.
Downy Woodpeckers are quite widespread in its breeding range, except in northern boreal regions. Although they are non-migratory birds, some birds can move through long distances.
The diet of Downy Woodpeckers primarily consists of insects, including ants, caterpillars, and even beetle larvae that live inside a wood or tree bark. They also eat pest insects such as corn earworm, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. Plant materials constitute about one-fourth of their diet, which include berries, acorns and grains.
As common feeder birds, they would eat suet and black oil sunflower seeds and sometimes drink from hummingbird feeders.
Downy Woodpeckers are very active. They would lift around tree limbs and trunks or fall into weeds to feed on galls. Their small size enables them to move more acrobatically than bigger woodpeckers. Sometimes, they would hop on the ground for food.
They also exhibit a ‘rising and falling’ flight technique that is common to many woodpeckers. This flight pattern is made up of alternating quick wingbeats and folding of the wings against the body.
They make several noisy calls during spring and summer, both by their high-pitched whinnying sound and by thumping on trees. One of these vocalizations is the short ‘pik’ call. When they are threatened by another bird species, they would fan their tail, lift their head feathers, and jerk their beaks from one side to another.
Downy Woodpeckers also showcase courtship displays. Both members of the pair would fly between trees with slow, hovering wingbeats that closely resembles the butterfly.
They are monogamous birds. Both males and females dig out nesting and roosting holes in soft or rotten wood. They commonly put their cavity entrance in a location that is surrounded by lichen or fungus in order to camouflage the hole. Both parents participate in incubating the eggs, 4 to 5 in average, for about 12 days. They also both feed the young. The chicks then fledge the best after 20 to 25 days. In average, a breeding pair raises only one breed every year.
The Downy Woodpecker is classified under the ‘Least Concern’ category of the IUCN Red List. Its population is seen to be stable or steadily increasing since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However, there are some recorded population declines in the Southeast portions of its range. Downy Woodpeckers occasionally nest along fences, and the move from wooden to metal fence posts over the last decades has reduced the bird’s numbers.
The estimated global breeding population of the species is 14 million, with 79 percent living in the U.S. and 21 percent in Canada. It has an 8 over 20 rating on the Continental Concern Score and is not included on the 2012 Watch List.