MEET THE DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens) by Jeff Sinker
Petite, active, acrobatic, and frequently confused for its larger lookalike, the Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpeckers are easily attracted to backyard feeders offering suet, black-oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and peanut butter. Downies also join flocks of small songbirds such as chickadees and nuthatches when foraging in parks, woodlots, orchards, alongside streams and mixed forest habitats. Mixed flocks are a common occurrence in the bird world because there are more eyes to both watch out for predators and to look for food sources. Adult male Downy Woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of their head and females lack this marking. Interestingly enough, fledgling Downies (both sexes) have red on top of their head.
Downies love insects and the larvae of beetles plus they also eat ants, caterpillars (including tent caterpillars), apple borers, corn earworms and bark beetles. It might be surprising to learn that about 25% of their diet comes from plants, including berries, grains, and acorns. These small woodpeckers can also access food sources that larger woodpeckers cannot reach, like insects or larvae living on or inside the stems of weeds, grasses, and perennial flowers.
Like all woodpeckers, the Downy doesn’t sing a song to attract a mate or establish a territory but instead drums loudly against tree trunks, other pieces of wood or if he wants to make a real impression the metal supporting pole of your satellite dish! Once a pair bond has been formed, both the male and female will excavate the nest hole in a dead tree or in the dead part of a live tree (they are also attracted to nest boxes). This process can take one to three weeks and when completed the bottom of the nest cavity is lined only with wood chips. A successful pair will raise one brood per season. Egg incubation takes 12 days followed by a nestling period of 18-21 days.
These charismatic little woodpeckers are numerous and according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their populations were stable between 1966 and 2015. A global breeding population of 1.3 million is estimated and they are a species of low conservation concern. Downies do well in young forests and have been less affected by the thinning and clearing of older forests. Learn more at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker. Photo credit: Downy Woodpecker by Joe Halton