The Downy Woodpecker is one of the best-known woodpeckers in North America.
A loud “pik” call and a descending horselike whinny direct my attention to an elm tree in the front yard. A small black-and-white woodpecker clings to the tree trunk just above the wooden shelf I placed on the side of the tree a few days earlier. The woodpecker’s tail feathers touch the shelf and make it look as if it is standing on its tail. It contorts its body first to one side, then the other, to grab a peanut from the shelf. Then it turns to face the trunk and pounds away at its prize. When it finishes one peanut, it turns to pick up another, then another. This is the first time I’ve seen it there, so it apparently has just discovered the bonanza I placed on the tree for the woodpeckers in the yard.
The woodpecker at the shelf feeder is a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). One of the best-known and smallest of North America’s woodpeckers, the Downy averages 6 3/4 inches in length. The only difference between the male and female Downies is the red patch on the back of the male’s head. The broad white stripe down the middle of its back separates the Downy from all other woodpeckers in North America except the Hairy.
Downy Woodpeckers Or Hairy Woodpeckers?
The two woodpeckers appear almost identical, but the Downy Woodpecker generally has dark bars or spots on its white outer tail feathers, measures about 2 1/2 inches smaller than the Hairy, and possesses a shorter bill. Even though they look similar, they are not closely related. The Downy is closer to the western Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Where to Find Downy Woodpeckers
The year-round range of the Downy Woodpecker extends from southern Alaska across Canada and most of the contiguous United States to the Gulf Coast and into Florida. It is mostly absent from the Southwest where it might appear locally only in winter. Because its range is so expansive and the bird is confiding and friendly, it’s easy to attract this woodpecker to your back yard. They especially like woods, farmland and suburban areas.
What Downy Woodpeckers Eat
“Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut ju-ust now!” Remember that old children’s song? I could imagine my Downy singing the tune when she found one of her favorite foods on that shelf. In addition to peanuts, Downies like other nutmeats, including coconut. They also favor doughnuts, cornbread, sunflower seed, cracked corn, suet cakes and American cheese. One of their all-time favorites is a mixture of cornmeal, lard and peanut butter. You can offer this treat in the holes of a hanging log or in a mesh bag.
I found out by accident that Downies love fruitcake. Because I’m the only one at our house who likes fruitcake, I usually get one for Christmas and half of it is left after the holidays. One day, I put a chunk of it in a wire basket that hangs in front of my “writing window,” and voila! The Downy found it and kept coming back for more.
These backyard birds are attracted to the fruit of serviceberry and wild strawberry plants, dogwood, mountain ashes and Virginia creeper. Much to the delight of gardeners, the woodpeckers also eat beetles, spiders and snails.
The Downy Woodpecker is versatile as far as birdfeeders are concerned. In addition to the shelf feeder, hanging log and wire basket already mentioned, they readily come to bird tables, platforms and small hanging feeders. I see the Downy frequently at a vinyl-coated wire mesh tubular feeder filled with peanuts.
Once you start feeding Downy Woodpeckers, you’d better remember to keep the food coming, or the birds will let you know about it. John V. Dennis tells about a Downy in New England that reminded the homeowners their feeders were empty by tapping on the shingles on the side of the house to get their attention.
Nests & Nestboxes
The Downies in your yard might find a dead limb in one of your trees where they will excavate a cavity from 5 to 40 feet high and 8 to 10 inches deep to lay their white eggs, generally four to five, and raise their young. They also might accept a nestbox. The floor should be 4 by 4 inches with an entrance hole 11/4 inches in diameter and 7 inches above the floor that you can line with wood chips, which is the Downy’s only nesting material. The wood for the box should be treated with a nontoxic wood preservative and the box placed out of direct sunlight and heavy rain.
If you don’t like the looks of artificial birdhouses in your yard and you have no dead tree limbs, you can create backyard nesting and feeding trees by anchoring a dead snag in concrete. With either a natural cavity or nestbox, you may get to see some of the courtship behavior and parenting skills of these interesting birds. Once a friend and I were enchanted as we watched a pair of Downy Woodpeckers from the time the first surface was broken for the entry hole until, two months later, a storm knocked down the dead limb that contained three nestlings.
As so often happens in the world of nature, we don’t always have “happily ever after” endings. However, a few days after the storm, the Downies appeared in the pecan tree with one fully feathered fledgling. With the resilience inherent in most birds, we were not too surprised that this little family survived the storm. Had it not been for an abundant supply of peanuts and suet cakes, we might never have had the chance to watch one of Mother Nature’s dramas unfold right in our own yard.