Birds of America – Everything You Need to Know About the Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker, (Latin name, Picoides pubescens) is the smallest of all woodpeckers found in North America.  It is very acrobatic and often frequents garden feeders and parks.

Here’s some more information about this cute bird.

Where can I see one?

The Downy Woodpecker lives pretty much all over Northern America.  Those who live in the North may fly further south in the summer and those in mountainous regions may fly to lower grounds.  During the winter months, they roost in holes in trees.

They breed in wooded areas across North and Central America, making nests in holes in trees or in the crook of a tree branch.  They favor deciduous trees (those which seasonally lose their leaves) and brush or bushy territory.  They also love orchards.

You could also look for them in places where there are tall weeds because they love to eat goldenrod galls for the fly larvae inside.  Look out for their distinctive rising and falling flight pattern.  You may often hear one before you see it because they have a shill call, rather like a horse whinnying.  And of course, like all woodpeckers, they drum on trees with their bill.

What do they look like?

Imagine a classic woodpecker shape and then downsize it.  These birds have wide shoulders and straight backs which helps them to lean away from the trunk of a tree.  Their beaks are straight and like a chisel.  In other woodpeckers, the bill is quite large but in the ‘Downy’, it is relatively smaller.

Regional Variations

Downy Woodpeckers in the West of America are darker all over their bodies with less white on their wings than those from the East.  Pacific Northwest Downys are altogether duskier.


At first glance, the Downy almost looks like a chess board.  Adult birds are mostly black on the upperparts, with white ‘checkering’ on the wings.  There is a white stripe above and below each eye.  Their back, throat and underbelly is white and there is a bold white stripe down the center of the back.  Their tail is black with white bars or white with black bars, depending on how you look at it!  You can tell a male from a female because males have a small red area on the back of the head and females don’t.

Male Downys aren’t very chivalrous

During the winter months, male and female Downys go their separate ways in the search for food.  Males favor small branches or the stems of weeds which offer more insects, seeds and berries, while females stick to larger branches and tree trucks.  This isn’t choice on the part of the female.  The presence of the male keeps her away from the ‘better’ areas.  This was shown when researchers took all males out of a feeding area and the females went straight into the ‘traditionally male’ area!

The difference between ‘Downys’ and ‘Hairys’

If you are a budding ornithologist, you will have spotted that the plumage description of the Downy Woodpecker also fits that of the Hairy Woodpecker.  Their plumage is virtually identical.  The differences between the two are that the Hairy is much larger than the Downy and the Hairy doesn’t have black spots on its white tail feathers.

Downys, Hairys and Convergent Evolution!

Although they look so similar, these two species of woodpecker are not closely related.  Experts believe that their similar looks are a wonderful example of something called convergent evolution.   This means that although they have the same biological traits and features, they have arrived at them independently and coincidentally, rather than being evolved from one another i.e. their lineage is unrelated.  No one is quite sure why this has occurred.

The Ornithologists challenge

Because of their amazing similarity, one of the first identification challenges that ornithologists like to master is to tell the difference between Downys and Hairys.

Why do Woodpeckers drum on trees?

For two reasons.  They are establishing their territory and the noise alerts other woodpeckers to the fact that this area is now taken!  They also drum to dig into wood, searching for food and to make holes to nest in.

The drumming is mostly during the spring when they want to find territory for a nest and then build it.  The noise is made by very fast pecking on the trunks and branches of dead trees which are quite resonant, giving the noise a slight echo.  Woodpeckers don’t only drum on trees – they have been observed drumming on buildings and utility poles.

Help! – a Woodpecker is making holes in my tree!

Generally, woodpeckers don’t make holes for nesting or probe for food in wood that is sound.  Most trees have some area of dead wood and if a woodpecker is drumming on your tree, the likelihood is that the area is already dead so it’s not the woodpecker that is doing the damage.  He’s just taking advantage of it!  Some people take woodpecker activity in their backyard to indicate that surrounding trees are unhealthy but this is rarely the case.  If you’re worried, it might be an idea to get an arborist to check out your trees.

How can I attract Woodpeckers to my backyard?

Downy Woodpeckers love suet feeders, especially during the winter months but they are also very partial to sunflower seeds (particularly the black oil variety), millet, peanuts and…chunky peanut butter!  Another tip is to set up some hummingbird feeders as Downys like to drink from these. Then sit back and enjoy watching these endearing creatures!

Bird Watch HQ

"If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands" - Douglas Adams

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