Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
Downy Woodpecker Identification
The Downy Woodpecker is a black-and-white bird who is a frequent visitor to backyards across the country. They are the smallest woodpeckers in North America at around six inches in length. Despite their size, they are energetic and bold with sharp chisel-like bills and spunky attitudes.
The male Downy Woodpecker is easy to distinguish from the female by the bright red patch on the back of his head. Both the male and the female have white bellies with black-and-white striped heads and black-and-white checkered wings. Birds in the western parts of the Downy Woodpecker range are somewhat darker, where those in the east show a sharper contrast.
This little woodpecker is common throughout most of the United States and Canada. If you put up a feeder, you have likely seen them around. If not, you’ve probably heard them drumming on nearby trees.
Scientific Name and Classification
The Downy Woodpecker's scientific name is Dryobates pubescens. It is classified within the genus Dryobates and the family Picidae, which includes woodpeckers, sapsuckers, wrynecks, and piculets.
Relatives of the Downy Woodpecker within the genus Dryobates include:
- Nuttall’s Woodpecker
- Ladder-backed Woodpecker
- Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
- Crimson-breasted Woodpecker
It is interesting to note that the visually similar Hairy Woodpecker is not a close relative. While they are in the same family, the Hairy Woodpecker is classified within the genus Leuconotopicus.
Habitat and Behavior
We find Downy Woodpeckers in a wide range of habitats. Open fields or streams surrounded by old-growth deciduous forests are ideal. However, any open areas are acceptable, including parks and suburban landscapes. While mature trees provide the most opportunities for feeding, because of its tiny size the Downy Woodpecker can forage on smaller tree branches and bushes.
This bird’s range extends throughout most of the United States, and it is only absent in the desert regions of the southwest. To the north, its habitat extends into Canada and Alaska.
Feeding and Food Preferences
In the wild, Downy Woodpeckers forage for a wide range of insects such as beetles, grubs, caterpillars, and ants. These insects are easy to find on the bark of trees in the warmer months. When the weather turns cold and the insects burrow deeper, the Downy Woodpecker must rely on its sharp, stubby beak to drill holes and find food. They will also eat fruit and grains when available.
At your feeder, the Downy Woodpecker happily accepts sunflower seeds, nuts, suet, and bits of dried fruit.
Downy Woodpeckers do not migrate. They remain in their range year-round and survive the winter by foraging in trees for dormant insects. However, some birds in the northernmost part of the range may move further south in the winter. And, birds in mountainous areas may move to lower elevations as the weather gets colder.
Breeding pairs form in late winter. These little woodpeckers build their nests in dead trees. The male and female work together to excavate a cavity around 6 to 12 inches in depth. The cavity can be as high as sixty feet from the ground and is camouflaged by moss or built on the underside of a tree limb.
Typical clutch size ranges from four to eight tiny eggs, which are incubated over a 12-day period. Afterward, the nestlings remain home for another 18-21 days. During this time, both the male and female woodpecker brings food to the hatchlings. After leaving the nest, fledgling Downy Woodpeckers may shadow their parents for several months. A pair of woodpeckers will only produce one brood per year.
Downy Woodpeckers are an abundant species and not a conservation concern. Their ability to thrive in areas of human habitation helps, as they can find food in areas with smaller, new-growth trees and readily take advantage of backyard bird feeders.
Downy Woodpecker FAQ
Learn more about the Downy Woodpecker!
Do Downy Woodpeckers nest in houses?
It is unlikely but possible that they will try to nest in your house. However, woodpeckers are notorious for drumming on homes and annoying homeowners. They may be looking for food or attempting to excavate a small cavity for roosting. Or, they may be making a racket so other woodpeckers know about their presence in the area.
Some homeowners dissuade woodpeckers by placing shiny objects near places where they are active. You may also want to address any insect infestations (such as carpenter bees) that are causing woodpeckers to come around looking for food.
Do Downy Woodpeckers use birdhouses?
Downy Woodpeckers prefer to nest in tree cavities they have excavated themselves, but they may take advantage of a birdhouse. You can increase the chances of attracting them by placing wood chips on the floor of the birdhouse and making sure it has proper ventilation. As always, when putting up a birdhouse be sure to place it away from bird feeding areas. Also, consider mounting the birdhouse on a pole with a baffle to discourage predators.
What is the difference between the Downy Woodpecker vs. the Hairy Woodpecker?
The easiest way to tell the difference between the Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker is their size. Hairy Woodpeckers are several inches larger than Downys. Bill size is another. Downy Woodpeckers have shorter bills in relation to their body size where a Hairy Woodpecker’s is longer and pointier.
Do Downy Woodpeckers kill trees?
Woodpecker activity by itself is rarely the direct cause of death for a tree. Birds like the Downy Woodpecker are attracted to wood that is already dead and decaying. Insects have moved in and infested the wood, and the woodpeckers come to feed on the insects. It appears woodpeckers are destroying the trees but, in reality, the tree already had issues.
What does a Downy Woodpecker sound like?
The Downy Woodpecker does not have a song, but it vocalizes. You will often hear short chirps or a string of chips when they are in the area. However, a greater indicator is the sound they make while drumming on trees, which is high-pitched and very rapid.
Do Downy Woodpeckers mate for life?
Yes! Typical of most woodpeckers, Downys will form a monogamous relationship and mate every year. Each breeding season they produce one brood of four to eight baby Downy Woodpeckers.
How to Attract the Downy Woodpecker
This is one of the easiest birds to attract to your backyard, and all it may take is putting up a birdfeeder. Here are some tips for bringing them around:
- Stock your feeder with black-oil sunflower seeds, nuts, and small pieces of dried fruit. You may also have some luck attracting them with suet.
- Because they are small birds, you may place a separate small feeder away from your main feeder. While these little woodpeckers can be bold at times, bigger birds such as Blue Jays may intimidate them away from the feeder.
- Consider a tube feeder with small perches that only smaller birds can access. The Chickadees, Goldfinches, and Titmice in your neighborhood will thank you for this as well.
- Place the birdfeeder under the canopy of a tree. This not only provides safety from aerial predators such as hawks, but it gives the Downy Woodpecker an easy escape should it feel uneasy at the feeder. Not to mention, it gives it one more place to hunt!
- Downy Woodpeckers will take advantage of a water feature if you provide one. A simple, shallow birdbath will do just fine. Be sure to clean it regularly. If you want to get more adventurous, consider installing a mister or fountain.
- If it is safe to do so, you may leave dead trees standing around the perimeter of your yard. This will encourage many species of woodpeckers to visit your property.
- Consider planting berry bushes and fruit trees. Any tree growing in your yard is a potential home for insects and potential hunting grounds for the Downy Woodpecker.
My Experience with the Downy Woodpecker
The Downy Woodpecker is one of my favorite birds. It took all the photos in this article on or around my property, where they are frequent visitors. I have had the most success with a tube feeder, but it seems they will come to any feeder I put up. I often spot them foraging in trees in and around my yard as well. We have apple and pear trees, and forest borders our property on two sides.
The Downy Woodpecker is easy to attract and fun to watch. I hope they come to visit you on your property. Tell me about your sightings in the comments section below!
- Downy Woodpecker Identification, All About Birds
- Downy Woodpecker, Audubon Guide to Birds of North America
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 16, 2020:
Very nice. Elaborate and informative.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on February 28, 2020:
Thank you, Raymond! No, you don't have the Downy Woodpecker in your region. However, I believe you do have the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which is a close relative and looks a little similar.
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on February 28, 2020:
What a remarkable bird you've put in the spotlight. It's a pity we don't have them here (as far as I know)