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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The active little Downy Woodpecker is a familiar sight at backyard feeders and in parks and woodlots, where it joins flocks of chickadees and nuthatches, barely outsizing them. An often acrobatic forager, this black-and-white woodpecker is at home on tiny branches or balancing on slender plant galls, sycamore seed balls, and suet feeders. Downies and their larger lookalike, the Hairy Woodpecker, are one of the first identification challenges that beginning bird watchers master.

Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4
Be a Better Birder Tutorial 3

Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Downy Woodpeckers are small versions of the classic woodpecker body plan. They have a straight, chisel-like bill, blocky head, wide shoulders, and straight-backed posture as they lean away from tree limbs and onto their tail feathers. The bill tends to look smaller for the bird’s size than in other woodpeckers.

  • Color Pattern

    Downy Woodpeckers give a checkered black-and-white impression. The black upperparts are checked with white on the wings, the head is boldly striped, and the back has a broad white stripe down the center. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head. The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots.

  • Behavior

    Downy Woodpeckers hitch around tree limbs and trunks or drop into tall weeds to feed on galls, moving more acrobatically than larger woodpeckers. Their rising-and-falling flight style is distinctive of many woodpeckers. In spring and summer, Downy Woodpeckers make lots of noise, both with their shrill whinnying call and by drumming on trees.

  • Habitat

    You’ll find Downy Woodpeckers in open woodlands, particularly among deciduous trees, and brushy or weedy edges. They’re also at home in orchards, city parks, backyards and vacant lots.

Range Map Help

Downy Woodpecker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Black above, white below; wings spotted white
    • Black-and-white face
    • Red patch on back of head
    • Short, chisel-like bill (shorter than depth of head)
    • © vidular, Wheaton, Illinois, October 2008
  • Adult female

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Black and white striped head
    • White patch in middle of back
    • Short, pointed bill
    • © Ronaldok, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, December 2008
  • Juvenile

    Downy Woodpecker

    Juvenile
    • Like adults, but with red cap
    • © wreckingball34, Lake Telemark, New Jersey, January 2007
  • Adult male

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Red patch on back of head
    • White patch in middle of black back
    • White spots on black wings
    • Black tail with white outer feathers; outer feathers with black bars or spots
    • © Byard Miller, Marlborough, New Hampshire, June 2008
  • Adult female

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • No red patch on back of head
    • White outer tail feathers have black barring
    • © B from Ohio, Ohio, January 2009
  • Adult female

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • All white underparts
    • Black and white striped head
    • Black tail with white outer feathers; outer feathers with black bars or spots
    • Short, chisel-like bill (shorter than depth of head)
    • © kbuechner, January 2009
  • Juvenile

    Downy Woodpecker

    Juvenile
    • Red cap
    • © Bob Baker, Greene Co, Virginia, August 2007
  • Adult male

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult male
  • Adult female

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Black and white striped head
    • White patch in middle of black back
    • White outer tail feathers have black barring
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult female

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult female
    • More patterned
    • Black and white barred back
    • White stripe on shoulder
    • Red crown and forehead
    • © Robert J. Baker, Virginia, March 2007
  • Adult female

    White-breasted Nuthatch

    Adult female
    • All white face and underparts
    • Black crown and nape
    • Blue-gray back
    • Reddish brown patterned undertail
    • © Matt MacGillivray, Brighton, Ontario, Canada, April 2008
  • Adult male

    Hairy Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Larger size
    • Larger, longer bill (usually almost equal to the depth of the head)
    • Usually no barring on white outer tail feathers
    • Variation (in sexes and geographically) like Downy
    • © Gary Mueller, December 2006
  • Adult with Hairy Woodpecker

    Hairy Woodpecker

    Adult with Hairy Woodpecker
    • Larger size
    • Larger, longer bill (usually almost equal to the depth of the head)
    • © Nancy Loos, December 2006
  • Adult

    Ladder-backed Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Range overlaps slightly in southwestern U.S.
    • Black and white barred back
    • Red crown
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, February 2009
  • Adult

    Red-cockaded Woodpecker

    Adult
    • Uncommon; range overlaps in southeastern U.S.
    • Black and white barred back
    • White cheek, essentially no red on head
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, November 2006
  • Adult male

    Nuttall's Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Red on hind crown (no red on female)
    • Black and white barred back, black wings with white spots
    • Black and white striped face
    • Spotting and barring on sides and flanks
    • White forehead
    • © encouragement, Placer Co., California, February 2009

Similar Species

Hairy Woodpeckers are larger than Downy Woodpeckers and have a larger bill that is almost as long as the entire head. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer and more distinct black mark on the shoulder, and in most populations, completely white outer tail feathers. A Downy Woodpecker's “whinny” call descends in pitch toward the end, unlike the Hairy Woodpecker's call. Nuttall's and Ladder-backed woodpeckers have horizontal bars on the back. Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a rare bird of southeastern pine forests. It has a barred back and white cheek.

Regional Differences

Downy Woodpeckers in the West are darker overall, and they tend to have less white in the wings than birds from eastern North America. Pacific Northwest have a dusky wash overall.

Backyard Tips

Where they occur, Downy Woodpeckers are the most likely woodpecker species to visit a backyard bird feeder. They prefer suet feeders, but are also fond of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and chunky peanut butter. Occasionally, Downy woodpeckers will drink from oriole and hummingbird feeders as well.

Find This Bird

Look for Downy Woodpeckers in woodlots, residential areas, and city parks. Be sure to listen for the characteristic high-pitched pik note and the descending whinny call. In flight, look for a small black and white bird with an undulating flight path. During winter, check mixed-species flocks and don’t overlook Downy Woodpeckers among the nuthatches and chickadees – Downy Woodpeckers aren’t much larger than White-breasted Nuthatches.

Get Involved

Keep track of the Downy Woodpeckers at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

If you see Downy Woodpeckers in your yard, report your observations to My Yard eBird

Can Woodpecker Deterrents Safeguard My House?: Read about what works and what doesn't on our blog