Downy Woodpecker

Common Name: Downy Woodpecker

Class:  Aves

Order:  Piciformes

Family: Picidae

Genus: Dryocopus

Species: Dryocopus pileatus

photo:  Ivan Andrijevic



The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. It is a small, mostly black and white bird. The male has a small red patch on the back of his head, and the female’s is black. The Downy Woodpecker has a white belly, a large white stripe on his back, and his wings are black with white spots in horizontal rows. The Downy has a small, pointed bill. The Downy has two toes pointing forward, and two backward. These feet, though adapted for clinging to a vertical surface, can be used for grasping or perching. The Downy has a long tongue that can be darted forward to capture insects. The tongue is not attached to the woodpecker’s head in the same way as it is in most birds, but instead it curls back up around its skull, which allows it to be so long.


The Downy is a very versatile woodpecker, and though historically found in forests, woodlots, willows, river groves, and orchards, can now be found in suburban areas, and even in the scarce trees of cities. The Downy is a year-round resident in places from Alaska through to Canada and the US, excluding the extreme southwest. The Downy Woodpecker feeds on insects and other arthropods, as well as fruits, seeds, and sap. The Downy will comes to suet feeders. The Downy prefers dead standing trees, or snags, because they tend to be full of grub and termites. The Downy, like most woodpeckers, climbs on the sides of trees, and ascends by spiraling.

photo:  Ivan Andrijevic


The Downy woodpecker first locates a tunnel inside a tree that contains insects by tapping on the trunk. Once a tunnel is found, the woodpecker chisels out wood until it makes an opening into the tunnel. Then it worms its tongue into the tunnel to try to locate the grub. The tongue of the woodpecker is long and ends in a barb. With its tongue the woodpecker skewers the grub and draws it out of the trunk. The Downy will also forage by gleaning, which is the catching of insects and other invertebrates by plucking them from within foliage.


The Downy Woodpecker is a frequent member of mixed species flocks in winter. The woodpecker is less vigilant looking for predators and more successful at foraging when in such a flock. It will readily join chickadees or other birds mobbing a predator, but it remains quiet and does not actually join in the mobbing. Male and female Downy Woodpeckers may stay in the same areas in winter, but they divide up where they look for food. The male feeds more on small branches and weed stems, and the female feeds more on large branches and the trunks of trees (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2003).

Downy Woodpeckers form monogamous breeding pairs in late winter. Both members of the pair excavate nesting and roosting holes in soft or rotten wood. They often situate their cavity entrance in a spot surrounded by lichen or fungus, which helps to camouflage the hole. The female will lay 3-8 white eggs, about .7-.8 in x .57-.6 in each. The Downy’s incubation period is 12 days. The chicks are altricial, (naked and helpless), at hatching, and fledge 18-22 days later. Each pair typically raises one brood per year.

Where to see them in WNY

The Downy is an extremely common bird, and can be found in practically any wooded area, if you look hard enough. The Downy is commonly seen on the Swallow Hallow Nature Trail in Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. is a program of Canisius College, Buffalo, NY.                                                  Web Design by Ivan Andrijevic