Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) – also known as Batchelder’s Woodpeckers, Gairdner’s Woodpeckers, Southern Downy or Willow Woodpeckers – are the most diminutive of America’s Woodpeckers, and they are the group that is most familiar to people.
A group of woodpeckers has many collective nouns, including a “descent”, “drumming”, and “gatling” of woodpeckers.
Downy Woodpeckers fasten themselves on tree limbs and trunks and swing out to drop into tall weeds to feed on galls, (abnormal outgrowths on the surface of plant tissues caused by various parasites—fungi, bacteria, insects and mites). They fly in an undulating manner and are able to move more acrobatically than larger Woodpeckers. And just as other Woodpeckers do, they drum and make whinnying noises during the nesting season.
People everywhere appreciate the Downy’s antics, and bird watchers gladly supply them with food and water, particularly during the winter months. But the Downy is not here just for the viewer’s benefit; he contributes to the health of our ecosystems. He consumes countless destructive insects, such as the wood-boring ones and their larvae; this provides great economic benefit to the community.
Typical of nearly all Woodpeckers, the Downy is an excellent and agile climber. His short legs and zygodactyl feet afford him an exceptional grip against the bark. As he climbs, he supports himself on his rigid, pointed rectrices; these tail feathers actually prop him up and sustain his weight as he works his way up and around the tree. He can be seen clutching tightly to the tree branch or trunk, bobbing his head; all the while he is scooting up and down the tree, moving in a circular pattern, then darting from side to side with astonishing swiftness.
In general, data obtained by census-takers indicates that the Downy’s populations are stable in North America; in fact, in Canada, their numbers have even increased in the last 20 to 30 years. But some areas are showing population decline as territories are being invaded for development. Woodpeckers require woodland areas with dead trees and snags in which to build their nests. Allowing these to remain is vital to the continuation of healthy populations of these and other cavity-nesting birds. The Downy Woodpecker benefits from a moderate amount of forest thinning, since they survive quite nicely in early, second-growth forests which contain more open stands of trees than in older forests. Even though widespread forest clearing has robbed the Downy of some of its habitat, it has compensated by utilizing areas that have been cleared for agriculture. In these areas, the replacement of wooden fence posts —which have in the past supplied them with roosting places and food sources— with metal posts is a concern.
Distribution / Habitat
Downys reside in nearly all of the North American continent and in parts of Canada.
They can be seen from the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico northwards. Even Alaska is home to them, and they are found across Canada and south throughout the U.S. with the exception of Hawaii and some parts of the southwestern states. Those states include sections of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Alaska.
Great numbers dwell in the Shenandoah National Park where they are among the few avian species to remain there throughout the winter. Although they are year-round residents in their territories, they do move to different areas, so they seem to appear and disappear with the change of seasons.
Canada is the northernmost part of its range, and the Downy is found from the island of Newfoundland across to James Bay, the northern Prairie Provinces, the southern Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia, to the Yukon. Downy Woodpeckers in these northern areas migrate southward in the winter. The distance they will travel depends on the food sources available to them.
Preferred habitats include woodlands, parks, and gardens, and within those spaces, this tiny bird excavates equally miniature cavities in dead trees or limbs. These measure a scant 10 cm around! This has the advantage of allowing the Downy to utilize a wider range of woodland than is accessible to the larger Woodpeckers. They prefer to make their homes in open, deciduous forests in the southern ranges and in mixed forests in the northern locations. Their favorite broad-leaved trees include poplars, birches, and ashes, all of which allow light to filter in among the evergreens. Forest edges and areas around openings in the denser forests are also desired locations. In the western part of its range, it can be found in alder and willow growth. The Downy shares these habitats with other Woodpecker species, but because each species selects different nest sites and foods, they can live in proximity without any discord. Each has its own place in the natural world.
Downys can be spotted in wooded lots and parklands, in orchards, and even in the parks and avenues of suburbs, towns and cities. They are a frequent visitor to gardens and back yards—anywhere there is an open stand of trees. Suburban development and its resulting fragmentation of forested areas has caused population decline for many species, but the Downy’s numbers have not diminished; in fact, these little birds are actually thriving in these settings! They flourish in early second-growth forests, which contain more open stands of trees than in older forests. Tree damage and mortality from ice and wind storms, hurricanes, insects, and disease actually provide the perfect habitat for the Downy.
For the most part, Downys reside in their territories on a permanent basis; however, winter finds some of the birds on the move. The northernmost birds will migrate south for the winter, and the birds which dwell in higher elevations will move to lower elevations during the colder weather. All this movement depends on the available food supplies. They will roost in their tree cavities throughout winter.
Subspecies and Ranges:
- Southern Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens pubescens – Linnaeus, 1766) – Nominate Form
- Range: USA, from Kansas east to North Carolina and south to eastern Texas and Florida.
- Northern Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens medianus – Swainson, 1832)
- Range: Central Alaska and Canada (east of Rockies, from southern Mackenzie and Alberta) east to southern Quebec and Newfoundland, and south into USA to Nebraska and Virginia.
- Hybridizes with the nominate form in central USA.
- [Newfoundland Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens microleucus)] – race not universally recognized
- Range: Newfoundland
- [Nelson’s Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens nelsoni – Oberholser, 1896)] – race not universally recognized
- Range: Alaska to Alberta
- [Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens oreoecus)] – usually considered invalid
- [Batchelder’s Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens homorus)] – usually considered invalid
- Batchelder’s Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens leucurus – Hartlaub, 1852)
- Range: Southeastern Alaska along the Rocky Mountains south to northeastern California, Arizona and New Mexico
- Valdez Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens glacialis – Grinnell, 1910)
- Range: South-eastern Alaskan coast
- Gairdner’s Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens gairdnerii – Audubon, 1839)
- Range: Western British Columbia south along coast to north-western California.
- Willow Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens turati – Malherbe, 1860)
- Range: Inland Washington and Oregon, wouth to California (avoiding northwestern and northeastern parts).
- Downy Woodpecker (fumidus – Picoides pubescens fumidus – Maynard, 1889)
- Range: Southwestern Canada and western Washington in the USA
Downy Woodpeckers measure between 6 and 7 inches (14-17 cm) in length, and their wingspan is between 10 and 12 inches (25-30 cm) wide. They weigh very little; adults weigh only 0.74 to 1 ounce (21-28 g).
Plumage Details / Adults
The Downy breast is white, and his back is black and white with a broad white stripe down the center. This gives him a checkered look. Males sport a red nape and a red patch on the crown, and the head is striped with black and white. The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots. The back, throat and belly are black and white, with the same colors marking the wings. There is a white bar above the eye and one below. They have a black tail with white outer feathers barred with black. The black wings are spotted with white, and the coverts and flight feathers display the same color arrangement. A black rump precedes the black tail, and the white outer rectrices are barred with black. The underwing of the Downy Woodpecker is gray and white. The strongly contrasting black and white plumage is especially apparent on the back and upper wing.
Other Physical Details
Downy Woodpeckers’ bodies are built just the same as their larger Woodpecker cousins. Their heads are rectangular in shape, their bills straight and pointed, their shoulders wide and strong. Their backs are straight—just as are the others—since they too lean away from the tree as they hammer in order to support themselves with their tails. The bill appears to be disproportionately smaller compared to those of other Woodpeckers.
The Downy Woodpecker is a dimorphic species. The adult female lacks the male’s red patch on the back of the head; instead, her head is black, and she has white superciliary stripes on each side of her head. These often join at the corners. The females have a longer tail and slightly shorter bill.
It takes about two months for the adult Downy to molt its plumage. This molt begins while the pair are raising their young. First the outer tail feathers are replaced, then the central tail feathers are molted; this is to make sure that the Woodpecker’s climbing ability is unaffected during the molting period. The birds are quiet during this time, resting and feeding most of the time. By September, the Downy’s bright white winter plumage begins to appear after a period of slightly yellow shading which eventually wears off.
Even the juvenile Downys will molt out their first feathers from summer through late fall. Their juvenile crown feathers are replaced with jet black plumage, and the males now have the signature bright red patch on the backs of their heads.
The Hairy Woodpecker is the closest to the Downy in appearance. The Downy’s plumage colors resemble the Hairy’s; in fact, it is difficult to tell them apart unless one is very close. The Hairy is 7.5 inches long, and its bill is longer. The Downy’s bill is shorter than its head, whereas the Hairy’s bill is just about equal to the length of the head. The Downy can also be identified by the presence of black spots on its white tail feathers. Although they are similar, there are aspects of both which enable the birdwatcher to tell them apart. The Downy’s outer tail feathers are barred with black, whereas the Hairy’s are all white. The Downy is about 6 cm smaller than the Hairy. The Downy’s bill is shorter than its head, but the Hairy’s bill is as long as or longer than its head length.
The Downy received its name from his soft, white feathers and the white patch on his lower back; in contrast, the Hairy’s feathers are more “hair-like” which gives it that name. The black bands on the tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker are often complete. This contrasts with those of the Hairy Woodpecker, whose black bands are broken and incomplete. The sizes and lengths of each bird’s culmen (cutting ridge of the upper beak) also serve to distinguish the two species.
Diet / Feeding
The Downy knows a good thing when he sees it. Why expend valuable energy hunting for food when nice people put it out for him, ready-to-eat? It is one of the few species that frequent suburban backyard birdfeeders, and in the winter more Downys are spotted at neighborhood feeders than in the woods! The industrious little bird joins flocks of other tiny birds—such as chickadees and nuthatches—at feeders in parks and woodlots. He uses his quick, nimble,acrobatic abilities to cling to tiny branches or balance on slender plant galls and sycamore seed balls.
Suet feeders abound for them; their long, straight beaks are perfect for probing into the suet. Another favorite is peanut butter, often placed in pine cones for foraging. They do, however, also chip away at trees for insects and their larvae. They also forage for seeds and berries when they are available.
The foraging pattern differs between males and females. The males prefer to hunt and roost high in the trees on smaller-diameter branches, whereas females choose lower to mid-level branches to feed. These are generally larger than the top branches. This choice of tree diameter allows males to forage on small branches which hold more food; meaning that the females are allocated to larger branches and the trunks of trees, which hold less food. Scientists believe that the males’ tendency to forage on branches which harbor more insects—the smaller branches—is driven by male dominance. The Downy Woodpecker is able to find food sources which are too small for the larger Woodpeckers to bother with—they even consume insect fauna on weed stems!
The Downy’s appetite for insects is huge— they feed on grubs which they find under bark, on plant stems, and in galls of trees. More than three fourths of its diet consists of insects, mostly the wood-boring beetles and other types of destructive invertebrates that cost property owners a fortune each year. Studies have shown that the Downy’s consumption of codling moths during the winter has reduced the moth’s population by 52%; this has been of great benefit to fruit growers, especially in apple orchards. Most timber harvesting and fruit production in the Shenandoah National Park are not affected by insect destruction; however, studies show that the Downy actively aids in the suppression of bark beetle infestations. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dutch Elm Disease was decimating trees nationwide, but in the Shenandoah National Park it was taking an even greater toll. The elm bark beetle is responsible for spreading this disease. Infestations of this and other non-native insects and their diseases are an on-going problem at the park; thus, the Downy Woodpecker has been credited with keeping the devastation in check since they feed extensively on both the Elm Bark Beetle and other damaging insects. A much smaller portion of their diet is composed of fruit and seeds when they are in season. Although the loss of forested areas near the park is a most significant issue for Downy Woodpeckers, they appear to have adapted and are able to survive in habitats that are less wooded.
After their young hatch, Downys search for more sizable and easily caught prey; caterpillars, moths and mayflies are the food of choice since these provide good nourishment for the nestlings as they grow. This prey also has the advantage of being easy to catch—quite important when there are many mouths to feed! Because of its size, it is able to hunt in the smaller branches and twigs—places too tiny for the larger woodpeckers.
Although some species of Woodpecker store caches of food for winter feeding, the Downy prefers to forage for minute insects infesting trees. During this time, a single pair of Downys is able to rid a tree of all its damaging insects. They will bore little round holes into the trees, exposing the insects’ hiding places and pulling them out with their tongues. They will remain in the same tree for hours before relocating to another, finally retiring to their tree cavities at sunset
To attract the Downy Woodpecker to your yard, make the food plentiful and easy to find. Prepared suet cakes in feeders, beef suet in mesh bags, peanut butter in cakes or on pine-cones, hanging feeders with nuts, fruits and berries will all attract them to your yard. Be sure to allow dead branches and trees to remain on the property if possible in order to attract nesting pairs. Lastly, refrain from spraying pesticides that will not only harm the birds but eliminate their natural food sources.
Breeding / Nesting
Downy Woodpeckers will begin to breed at about a year of age; since they hatch in the spring, the following spring would be their first breeding season. They will form bonded pairs early in the spring and use the same nesting cavity for several years. Each bird will live in his own separate sleeping holes in the tree trunks; often these openings are the same ones they had occupied in previous seasons.
This nest-building process takes two to three weeks; half the daylight hours are spend each day chiseling out the hole. The male will work for about 20 minutes, then rest and feed. The finished cavity measures from 12-15 cm wide and 20-30 cm deep. They will choose a nest site, he will drill multiple round cavities, and she will make the final choice. The cavity is usually from 3.6-9.0 meters above ground, and its short, narrow opening is as at the top of the nest. This portal is just barely large enough for the birds to squeeze through. After its completion, he sleeps in the cavity at night.
During the breeding season, the Downy aggressively defends its nesting site against other Downys. Trespassers will find that invading another’s territory will result in confrontational—even hostile—behaviors. These displays include marching back and forth while engaging in menacing postures. The nest protector will open his bill, lower his head, and spread his wings until they are completely raised and open as far as they will go. He will then spin and fly about, twisting and turning, to ward off the offending bird. Just as other Woodpeckers do, each bird defends against the interloper of the same sex while the other observes. These conflicts, although often hours in duration, rarely result in physical contact. The demonstrations may continue for several hours but seldom end in actual fighting. The invader usually departs before any harm is done.
The two devote most of their free time to courtship involving calling and drumming, pursuits, and displays. She will lay four to seven white eggs, most commonly just four. During the egg-laying, they alternate incubation duties with standing guard in the doorway. These shifts last from 15 to 30 minutes, and the male sits on the eggs at night, giving the female a break to eat and sleep. This way the eggs are always covered during the 12-day incubation period.
Hatching takes place in Canada from early May to July. Like all Woodpeckers, they are altricial, tiny and helpless. During this time, brooding of the nestlings continues and the parents bring them small insects to eat. They weight only about 1.6 g. at hatching. As they grow, keeping them warm is no longer necessary, so the parents extend the time needed to search for food for the chicks. Feeding is a noisy time, with the nestlings making chippering sounds as they open their beaks and beg. After they finish placing insects into the mouths, the parents retrieve the fecal sacs and remove them from the nests, thus keeping the nest clean.
By the time the birds are 17-18 days old, they are nearly full-grown. Except for the red crowns on the males’ heads and white stripes on the females’ heads, they are hard to distinguish from the parents. The curious nestlings climb out of the nest and perch at the opening, observing the outside world. With so many mouths to feed, the parents must bring large amounts of food to them every three minutes. This adds up to four or five feeds for each nestling every hour! This is extremely taxing for the parents.
As fledging nears, the parents reduce the amount of food they bring, and the nestlings begin to think about leaving the nest. Although they aren’t keen on leaving the nest, they are lively and hungry, so one of them rushes in and out of the nest, calling loudly, and eventually spreads its wings—for the first time. His first flight is a short distance, just to the next tree, but it is exhausting, and he’ll rest there for about an hour. The newly flighted birds, all out of the nest now, will hide in the trees. The parents continue to feed them, seeking larger grubs and insects for them.
After three weeks, the tiny Downys are on their own. This is the most perilous time for the youngsters. For a week they follow their parents, learning how to forage for food. They now look after themselves, but mortality is at its peak during this time since the parents are no long there to protect them. Birds in southern location may begin a second clutch at this time.
Calls / Vocalizations / Sounds
The Downy Woodpecker’s vocalizations are varied. Its calls consist of a sharp “pik” and “tick,tchick,tcherrick” sounds. Its song is not too melodious, though, just a harsh rattling sound. Downys drill or drum just as the larger Woodpeckers do, but their pattern is quite slow in comparison. Both the male and female utter a sharp, whinnying contact call of descending notes during nesting season.
Alternate (Global) Names
Chinese: ???? … Czech: strakapoud osikový, Strakapoud prachový … Danish: Dværgflagspætte … Dutch: Donsspecht … Estonian: haava-kirjurähn … Finnish: keijutikka, Pikkunokkatikka … French: Pic mineur … German: Dunenspecht … Italian: Picchio lanuginoso, Picchio vellutato … Japanese: sejirokogera … Norwegian: Dunspett … Polish: dzieciol kosmaty, dzi?cio? kosmaty … Russian: ???????? ????? … Slovak: datel ozdobný, ?atel’ ozdobný, ?ate? ozdobnýSpanish: Carpintero Peludo, carpintero velloso menor, Carpintero Velloso-menor, Carpintero-velloso Menor, Pico Pubescente … Swedish: Dunspett
As is the case with most small birds, the Downy’s lifespan is brief compared to that of larger birds.
By the time it is five years old, it is considered elderly, since most Downys don’t live past the age of two. There are exceptions, however. A Downy that was captured and banded at the San Francisco Bay bird observatory was recaptured eleven years and one month later. Its plumage at the time of its initial capture indicated that it was at least a year old. This meant that at the time of the second capture it was at least 12 years of age. Even this is not the record for a Downy’s lifespan.
The Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service keeps records of bandings and recaptures, and there is documentation that a Downy Woodpecker was caught 11 years and 11 months after its first capture. Downys, like other small birds, have a short median life span due to high mortality rates during their first year of life.