24 Interesting Facts About Downy Woodpeckers

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Whether you are new to bird watching or an old pro, there’s always something new to learn about Downy woodpeckers. Check out these 24 interesting facts about the Downy to learn all about these common woodpeckers. 

Interesting facts about Downy woodpeckers

Downy woodpeckers are often considered the most common woodpecker in eastern North America. With their bold black and white coloring and tiny stature, they are a memorable sight in many forests and suburban areas. You may also recognize them from backyard feeders, where they are often frequent visitors.

How much do you know about this populous species? Learn more with our 24 fun and interesting Downy facts, enjoy!

Description

1. Downy woodpeckers are the smallest woodpecker species found in North America. Their body length ranges from 5.5 to 7.1 inches. Their bill is fairly small for a woodpecker.

2. These woodpeckers have bold black and white coloring. Their upper parts are black and under parts are white. They have a black head with large white stripe above and below the eye. The middle of their back is white, and their black wings have white spots. 

3. Males and females have the same coloring, but males have a bright red patch on the back of their head while females do not.

4. The Downy is often confused with Hairy woodpeckers due to their nearly identical plumage. The Downy is smaller, has a shorter beak relative to their head size, and have black spots along their outer tail feathers.

5. There are some slight regional differences in their plumage. Those living in the west tend to be darker overall. Downies along the Pacific coast have a dingier brownish-gray coloring compared to the starker white of the eastern birds.

Habitat

6. Downy woodpeckers can be found throughout the United States, including parts of Alaska, as well as Canada. 

7. The only places where Downy’s are noticeably absent are the deserts of the U.S. southwest and the tundra of far northern Canada. 

8. The Downy is considered a “resident” bird in that it does not migrate with the seasons. They can be found in forested areas (with a preference for deciduous trees), orchards, parks and suburbs.  

Diet and Feeding

9. Downy’s are the most likely species in the woodpecker family to visit backyard bird feeders. Out of the 17 North American woodpecker species, some won’t visit feeders at all, while others will only rarely. Downy’s however, seem to really enjoy backyard feeders and will show up readily. 

10. Downy’s will eat a variety of foods at your feeders including suet, black oil sunflower, millet and peanuts.

11. These small woodpeckers are known for enjoying the occasional sip of nectar. You may spot one taking a drink from your hummingbird or oriole feeder! Many woodpeckers enjoy tree sap and will drill sap-wells into trees, so this isn’t too surprising.  

Downy drinking from my hummingbird feeder

12. In the wild, insects make up about 75% of their diet. This includes ants and caterpillars but also a large amount of beetle larvae that live inside of wood or tree bark. About 25% of their diet is plant material like grain, acorns and berries.

13. Their small size allow’s them to find food where larger woodpeckers cannot. For instance, they have been observed balancing on the stems of wildflowers and weeds, eating the insects that live on or inside these plants. 

Nesting & Young

14. Downy’s nest in dead trees, or dead parts of live trees. They excavate a cavity in the wood, favoring deciduous trees that are infected with a fungus that makes the wood soft.

15. Male and female Downy’s both work on the nest hole, and it takes between 1-3 weeks to carve out. 

Male Downy excavating nest hole | image by Shiva Shenoy via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

16. Nest cavities are between 6-12 inches deep and wider at the bottom, since this is where the eggs will be laid, on top of a layer of wood chips.

17. Downy woodpecker eggs are white, and between 3-8 eggs are laid at a time. They will hatch about two weeks after incubation, and the young will leave the nest in three weeks. 

18. Males and females share in all the duties of nesting including creating the nest hole, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. A true partnership! 

19. Downy parents may continue to feed their young fledglings for a few weeks after they leave the nest. Getting food from mom and dad helps during this period where they are still learning how to find food for themselves. 

Adult Downy feeds juvenile

Behavior

20. When trying to threaten another bird, the Downy will raise up the feathers on their head, spread out their tail feathers and wave their beaks from side to side. 

21. During courtship, they may perform what is called the “butterfly flight”. Before nesting, they will chase each other through trough trees, then stretch their wings out and slowly flap them up and down in a manner that looks much more like a butterfly flapping its wings than a bird. 

22. Downy’s are very active and are able to dart around trees, branches and even firm stems of grasses and flowers. They hold their tail stiff against surfaces and use it to help prop themselves up like a kickstand. They can be acrobatic, and more horizontally and downwards on tree trunks more often than other species of woodpecker. 

23. Males and females both drum on trees to claim territory and attract potential mates in the area. The drumming is a rapid-fire banging of their beak on a tree or other hard surface. This is much different from the slow pecking they use to create an actual hole and excavate a nest. The only purpose of drumming is to create a sound that will carry.

24. During the winter, males will forage for food on small branches and weed stems, while females will stick to larger branches and tree trunks. Males also tend to feed higher up in the tree, while females stick to the middle or lower portion. 

About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.