Downy Woodpecker Wednesday

Today’s Woodpecker of the week is the smallest Woodpecker in North America: the Downy. The little Downy is acrobatic, versatile, and found throughout most of the country.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)


Downy Woodpeckers are black and white with straight chiseled bills and wide shoulders. Their upperparts are black with white checkered patterns on their wings and a white stripe down their backs. Their underparts are white and their tails are mainly white with some black spots. Their heads are boldly striped, and males have a red patch that the female lacks. A Downie’s bill is about half the width of their heads.

Male Downy Woodpecker (Image via


Downies are found throughout the majority of the United States and Canada, with the exception of extremely northern Canada. They are rarely seen in the Southwest United States. They are more common in the East than the West.


Open deciduous woodlands, orchards, shade trees, willow groves, backyards, and city parks

Female Downy Woodpecker (Image by David Horowitz)


Mainly insects, as well as seeds and berries. Downies are common at backyard feeders where they may eat suet. Sap consumption is more common in the winter and bark foraging occurs more in the summer. Due to their small size, Downies not only forage on the trunk but on smaller limbs as well as weed stalks and shrubs. Their chiseled bills helps them get right under the surface of the tree bark so they can pierce insect tunnels.


Downies are monogamous and renew their pair bonds starting in the fall and continuing into the winter. They have a few different courtship/bonding activities. Bonding activities include drumming on separate trees until the male approaches, foraging together, and the butterfly flight. The butterfly flight includes the pair chasing each other through the trees with their wing held high and flapping slower,weaker wing beats. They may loop around the territory multiple times during this display. The female usually chooses a nest cavity with the male approving, which is usually in some part of a dead tree.

A clutch size (number of eggs) for a Downie’s brood is usually 3-8 eggs. Incubation by both parents begins around when the last egg is laid. The incubation period is about 12 days. Hatching is asynchronous, meaning the eggs will hatch within a few hours (or sometimes days) of each other. The chicks in the eggs who hatch first have a higher chance of survival since they can start begging for food sooner. Therefore, Downy chicks who hatch later have a high mortality rate. Both parents will bring bill-fulls of insects to feed the young. About 20-25 days later the young will fledge and follow the parents for up to 3 weeks.


Highly vocal. A descending whinny, that starts with a single or double notes with a rapid acceleration and the pitch doing downwards (sometimes called a rattle call). This whinny is used to announce location, defend a territory, or in solidifying a pair bond. Common call is a sharp pik! or peet!

Fun Facts:

  • Many people have trouble distinguishing Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers since they are similar in appearance. An old trick that’s used is “Downy dinky, Hairy huge”. To be more specific, a Downy is around 6 inches (like a House Sparrow) and Hairys are around 9 inches (like an American Robin). A Hairy’s bill is about as long as its head is wide, while Downie’s bills are smaller than their head’s width.
Downy (left) and Hairy (right) (Image from by Gary Mueller)
  • Downies are the second most abundant bird in North America (the Northern Flicker is #1 in that category).
  • They are one of the 10 smallest Woodpeckers in the world.
  • Females tend to forage more on the tree trunk and larger limbs. Males tend to forage on smaller limbs and weed stems.
  • Tapping is used to describe when a Downy is excavating on a tree. Tapping is slower than drumming, which is generally used for pair bonds and is much quicker.

If you want to learn more about Downy vs. Hairy identification tips, check out Project Feederwatch’s (from the Cornell Lab) article listed below. (Project Feederwatch is where I got the above downy/hairy picture).

Project Feederwatch Downy vs. Hairy Woodpecker

Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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