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.