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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.

Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.
Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5–6.7 in
14–17 cm
Wingspan
9.8–11.8 in
25–30 cm
Weight
0.7–1 oz
21–28 g
Relative Size
About two-thirds the size of a Hairy Woodpecker
Other Names
  • Pic mineur (French)

Cool Facts

  • In winter Downy Woodpeckers are frequent members of mixed species flocks. Advantages of flocking include having to spend less time watching out for predators and better luck finding food from having other birds around.
  • Male and female Downy Woodpeckers divide up where they look for food in winter. Males feed more on small branches and weed stems, and females feed on larger branches and trunks. Males keep females from foraging in the more productive spots. When researchers have removed males from a woodlot, females have responded by feeding along smaller branches.
  • The Downy Woodpecker eats foods that larger woodpeckers cannot reach, such as insects living on or in the stems of weeds. You may see them hammering at goldenrod galls to extract the fly larvae inside.
  • Woodpeckers don’t sing songs, but they drum loudly against pieces of wood or metal to achieve the same effect. People sometimes think this drumming is part of the birds’ feeding habits, but it isn’t. In fact, feeding birds make surprisingly little noise even when they’re digging vigorously into wood.
  • Downy Woodpeckers have been discovered nesting inside the walls of buildings.
  • The oldest known Downy Woodpecker lived to be at least 11 years 11 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Open woodlands, particularly deciduous woods and along streams. Also found in created habitats including orchards, parks, and suburbs. You may also find Downy Woodpeckers in open areas, where they can nest along fencerows and feed amid tall weeds.

Food


Insects

Downy Woodpeckers eat mainly insects, including beetle larvae that live inside wood or tree bark as well as ants and caterpillars. They eat pest insects including corn earworm, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains. Downy Woodpeckers are common feeder birds, eating suet and black oil sunflower seeds and occasionally drinking from hummingbird feeders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.9–2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
12 days
Nestling Period
18–21 days
Egg Description
Completely white.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, pink skin, a sharp egg tooth at the tip of bill; eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

Both male and female excavate the nest hole, a job that takes 1 to 3 weeks. Entrance holes are round and 1-1.5 inches across. Cavities are 6-12 inches deep and widen toward the bottom to make room for eggs and the incubating bird. The cavity is lined only with wood chips.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Downy Woodpeckers nest in dead trees or in dead parts of live trees. They typically choose a small stub (averaging around 7 inches in diameter) that leans away from the vertical, and place the entrance hole on the underside. Nest trees are often deciduous and the wood is often infected with a fungus that softens the wood, making excavating easier.

Behavior


Bark Forager

An active woodpecker that moves quickly over tree trunks, branches, and stems of grasses and wildflowers, characteristically leaning against its stiffened tail feathers for support. Downy Woodpeckers move horizontally and downwards on trees much more readily than most other woodpeckers. You may also see them perched atop tall weeds such as goldenrod in late summer, hammering away at a plant gall to get at the larva inside. Occasionally hops on the ground for food. Downy Woodpeckers have the undulating flight pattern typical of many woodpecker species, alternating quick wingbeats with folding the wings against the body. When having a dispute with another bird, Downy Woodpeckers fan their tails, raise their head feathers, and jerk their beaks from side to side. In spring you may see courtship displays in which males and females fly between trees with slow, fluttering wingbeats that look almost butterfly-like.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Downy Woodpeckers are numerous and their populations have increased since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 14 million, with 79 percent living in the U.S., and 21 percent in Canada. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2012 Watch List. These birds sometimes nest along fences, and the shift from wooden to metal fenceposts over the last century may have reduced their numbers. But clearing and thinning forests has had the opposite effect, since Downy Woodpeckers do well in young forests.

Credits

Range Map Help

Downy Woodpecker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident

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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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