Bird Lore: Downy Woodpecker

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downy_maleIf you see a small, nimble woodpecker in your backyard, more than likely it is a Downy Woodpecker. This black-and-white woodpecker is a common and widespread permanent resident of most of North America, including Edmonds. It is North America’s smallest woodpecker. The male has a red patch on its head.

The Downy looks similar to the Hairy Woodpecker. When you see a single bird, and have no other bird to compare it to, it can be difficult to distinguish between these species. Habitat can help. The larger Hairy Woodpecker favors conifer forests. The smaller Downy favors deciduous trees. You can also look closely at bill size. The Downy’s bill is small, less than the width of its head. In urban and suburban areas, the Downy can be almost tame. When approached, it frequently just moves around in a tree instead of flying off. It will also forage on small branches or plant stalks that will not hold a Hairy.

The Downy eats mostly insects but will come to feeders that offer suet, sunflower seeds, or chunky peanut butter. Its preferred insects include beetles, ants, gall wasps, and caterpillars. It can be found foraging pretty much anywhere on a tree—trunks, major limbs, minor branches, and even twigs. It can hang upside down to feed. It will also forage on shrubs and weed stalks. When feeding in winter it does more tapping and excavating. In summer it gleans insects from plant surfaces. It also eats some berries, nuts, and grains.

downy_femaleIn fall and winter the Downy can be found in mixed flocks, traveling with chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Pairs form in winter. Both sexes drum within their territories and then the male gradually approaches the female. Both sexes excavate a cavity in a dead limb or tree up to 30 feet above ground. The cavity entrance is often surrounded with lichen or fungus to camouflage it. There are usually 4-5 eggs incubated by both adults for about 12 days. Both parents bring bills full of insects to the nestlings. The young leave the nest 20-25 days after hatching. They follow the adults for several weeks before becoming independent. At our latitude, the Downy has one brood per year.

The drumming of a Downy Woodpecker can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/160151. This is its call: http://www.xeno-canto.org/144085.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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