With a natural range spanning from Alaska to Florida, downy woodpeckers are one of the most common backyard birds. In winter they are often seen side by side with chickadees, nuthatches, and sparrows. In fact, they will frequently join flocks of these birds for added protection. Earning the title of the smallest woodpeckers in North America, they are hardly larger in size than their potential flock-mates.
Downy woodpeckers vary in appearance by region. Between the Eastern and Pacific downies, the main difference is that the Pacific downy woodpecker has a tan hue to the white feathers on its breast. Both males and females of the Pacific downies have this discoloration. Males and females or both regions are easy to differentiate, however, as the male downies have a vibrant red spot on the back of their head. Aside from this vibrant red on the males, and the tan hue of the Pacific variant, all downies are black and white in coloration, with their wings mainly black with white spots and their throat and bellies white. This color profile is almost identical in both downies and their cousins the hairy woodpecker. The only noticeable differences between the two are their body and bill size, both of which are larger on the hairy.
Downies have the typical swooping and undulating flight pattern of most woodpeckers and can be distinguished by their drumming and calls. Most frequently heard is a short “pik” call, and their drumming is slower than other woodpeckers. This drumming isn’t created while the birds are feeding, but rather it is used by both males and females as a form of communication and marking of territories.
Like nearly all woodpeckers, they eat insects that hide underneath bark. They also feed on insects within stems of plants and tall grass stalks and galls due to their small stature. Considered one of the more acrobatic species of woodpecker, they will even feed upside down. Nuts, berries, and suet are other favorite foods for downies, and can frequently be found at backyard bird feeders as a result.
Downy woodpeckers have a very unique mating ritual, which has been dubbed the “butterfly flight”. During this ritual the male and female chase each other, wings flapping slowly like a butterfly. Once paired, these small woodpeckers nest in cavities in dead or dying trees. Human structures may also be used, particularly structures with wood siding. Unlike some birds that return to the same nesting location year after year, these nests will be used only once. Eggs typically come in fours or fives, although sometimes the nest can have up to eight eggs at once. Males and females both incubate the eggs until they hatch 12 days later, and will bring food back for the hatchlings until they leave the nest after another 20 days.
Downy woodpeckers are a popular bird among bird-watchers and bird lovers across the United States, and are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. For those wishing to rid their home of nuisance woodpeckers, some at-home solutions can be eliminating feeders, installing flashers or painting or replacing wood siding. If the problem persists, a permit must be obtained from the Law Enforcement Division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service before any action can be taken.