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Downy Woodpecker Notecard



Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

The downy woodpecker is the smallest, tamest and most abundant eastern woodpecker. The bird is also common in parts of the West and into Canada. The male is distinguished from the female by a bright red patch on the back of his head. The downy woodpecker’s back and forth motions are active and sprightly as it spirally ascends the circumference of a tree, giving occasional raps on the bark. The tail feathers afford rigid support as the bird hitches its way up the trunk. The hard sharp bill is used to chisel into bark and wood while searching for insects or excavating a nest hole. The nostrils are covered with bristlelike feathers to protect them from wood dust raised by the woodpecker’s drilling. In contrast to the irregular pecks made during feeding and excavating, the downy woodpecker also pecks in a loud, continuous manner on hard surfaces including trees, poles and drainpipes. Known as drumming, this behavior is thought to announce territory and attract mates, as song does for other birds. The bird’s unique skull structure reduces the shock of impact against hard surfaces.

Woodpeckers generally build their homes by excavating holes in limbs and trunks of trees. Downy woodpeckers prefer to drill their holes in dead trees with both sexes sharing in the digging. Holes usually face south or east, probably to take advantage of early morning light and warmth of the rising sun. The female lays her eggs on a layer of wood chips left on the bottom of the cavity.

Mated pairs of downy woodpeckers remain together throughout the year. They are generally not migratory as their food supply of insect pupae and larvae is available under bark or in dead rotted wood year-round. Downy woodpeckers roam the winter woods in the company of mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers and kinglets. They seldom drill into a live healthy tree, and trees in which downy woodpeckers feed are seldom harmed. During winter the birds can be found in corn fields, searching for corn borers in the dead stalks. Downy woodpeckers come to bird feeders for suet, cracked walnuts and peanut butter.

artwork and text by Steve Sierigk (c) 1998