Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest North American woodpecker. These diminutive birds have body lengths up to 7 inches and wingspans up to 12 inches. Downy Woodpeckers have black colorations along their upperparts and wings in addition to a white back, throat and belly. Downy Woodpecker wings also sport white spotting, and white bars can be seen above and below the eye. Adult males have a small red patch on the back of their head. Downy Woodpeckers look similar to their larger cousins, the Hairy Woodpecker. However, Hairy Woodpeckers have bills that are approximately equal to the length of their head while Downy Woodpecker’s bills are shorter.
Male (left) and female Downy Woodpecker by Ken Thomas, Wikimedia Commons and Kerry Wixted
These woodpeckers can be found in woodlots, fields, and backyards. Oftentimes, they can be seen perching on reeds or goldenrod, attempting to extract larvae in plant galls.
Downy Woodpeckers primarily feed on insects such as beetle larvae found in trees. They are known to consume several pest species such as tent caterpillars, fall webworms, bark beetles, and even the invasive emerald ash borer. Part of their diet also consists of plant material such as berries, acorns, and grains. They will actively visit backyard feeders filled with suet and black oil sunflower seeds.
In late winter, Downy Woodpeckers begin breeding. To attract a mate, they will drum on trees. Once paired, the couple will excavate a nest from a dead tree. Generally, it takes up to two weeks to build the nest. Once complete, the male and female will drop woodchips into the hole. Females will lay 3-8 white eggs and will leave the male to do most of the incubation over 12 days. Both parents will take turns foraging for the young. Typically, nestlings do not fledge until 18-21 days after hatching.
Downy woodpeckers will regularly visit suet feeders in the winter by Dawn Huczek, Wikimedia Commons
When excited, Downy Woodpeckers will sound off with several very sharp ‘pik’ notes. Similar to other woodpeckers, both sexes will drum to attract mates and to mark territory.
Downy Woodpeckers are very active during the day, spending most of their time foraging. They often can be seen moving up and down tree trunks and branches. Occasionally, they also will feed on insects that live in the galls on plants.
The oldest known Downy Woodpecker lived over 11 years!
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