Of all our woodpeckers that peck wood, none peck more wood than downy woodpeckers.
Downies are our smallest of woodpeckers, but they are easily the most commonly seen and, indeed, most numerous of a half-dozen hammer-headed species in this neck of the woods. On a broader basis, downy woodpeckers outnumber other species on the entire continent, found routinely across America (though not so much in the desert Southwest) and much of Canada.
Downy woodpeckers are ideally most at home in the open woods, and one can imagine that in the times of the undisturbed, massive Eastern forest centuries ago that it was a downy wonderland. Yet, with the changes in the environment wrought by man, civilization and development, the little woodpeckers still do very well.
Along with forest habitat, downies are very comfortable with scattered trees as found in suburban backyards, parks, even open land with adjacent edge cover as timber and weedy growth areas.
Because they are well adapted to making a living right around human residences just as they are in the deep woods, downy woodpeckers should be familiar to most people. At a fleeting glance, it is just a smallish black and white woodpecker.
The bird ranges from about 5.5 to 6.5 inches long, little larger than many of the small songbirds in the neighborhood. In flight, its wings may spread to a bit more than 11 inches, but with wings folded as a vertical pedestrian on the side of a tree, the downy is really a little guy or girl.
A close look reveals that a downy is mostly black on its back with a white stripe down the middle. Its wings are black with rows of white spots. The head is black with a couple of horizontal white stripes through the face. The undersides of the body up to and including the chin are white.
The sexes are visually identical except that a male had a small red “cap” on the back of his head. The absence of any red on the topknot is a surefire indicator of a lady woodpecker.
We have another species of woodpecker that is almost identical to the downy except for its size. The hairy woodpecker looks like an overgrown downy. A hairy woodpecker grows to a length of about 11 inches, while even the smallest ones will be on the plus side of 9 inches.
Compared to an average size of around 6 inches or a bit larger for a downy woodpecker, the difference would seem to be obvious. Yet, when you look at one bird alone with no scale of reference, it is not that easy to swear how large that woodpecker is.
When in doubt, it usually comes down to commonality. Hairy woodpeckers aren’t all that numerous, while downy woodpeckers are the standard hereabouts. Unless one of those black and white woodpeckers just looks especially large, it is probably a downy.
One secret to the downy’s success is its flexibility in food requirements. It scuttles around in the trees, up first one trunk or branch and then another, pecking for and picking at a wide range of insects. Where tree foraging may be leaner, a downy can prosper checking out the stouter weed growth for worms that grow in galls. A downy can operate on a weed stalk that might buckle with a larger, heavier woodpecker.
While insects make up about 75% of a downy woodpecker’s diet, there is little problem during winter periods when bugs are less available. A downy also enjoys various seeds, grains and fruits on its menu.
These little woodpeckers perhaps surprisingly are regular visitors to bird feeders when fare like sunflower seeds are offered to species more associated with seed-eating. When a bird-feeding human puts out suet especially for woodpeckers, downies like that, but it certainly isn’t all they will take.
There are at least a couple of downies around my abode that horn in on the sugar water feeders that are placed for hummingbirds. These smallest of woodpeckers apparently have a bit of a sweet tooth (beak?), too. And when the downies are on the sugar water feeders, the tiny hummingbirds are just out of luck. The little downy woodpeckers may enjoy this rare chance to play the heavy.
Downy woodpeckers seem to be reasonably fluid fitting into avian woodlot societies. In the fall and winter months, it is common for small flocks of mixed songbird species to hang out together. Maybe it is for safety in numbers, but these little aggregate bunches of birds flitter along through the trees, feeding as they go.
I typically see an assortment of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, nuthatches, maybe a couple of Carolina wrens and then, despite the odd matchup, there will be a downy woodpecker or two. When I’m in the trees hunting, the passing chickadees and titmice are famous for angrily berating me over my very presence there. The little woodpeckers and the nuthatches are far more forgiving and cordial.
There isn’t much not to like about downy woodpeckers. They don’t damage living trees and probably help them by picking off insects that could weaken them. A lot of the insects upon which they feed also are among those that damage agricultural crops, too.
Downy woodpeckers are a good example that bigger isn’t always better, while small and adaptable may be the best yet.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.