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A photo of a Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), male
Downy Woodpecker, Male

Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens

The Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, holds the distinction of being the smallest woodpecker in North America. Exhibiting a black and white coloration, the males are characterized by a striking red patch on the back of their head, a feature absent in females and juveniles. These diminutive birds measure from 14 to 18 cm in length, with a wingspan stretching from 25 to 31 cm, and weigh between 20 to 33 grams.

Identification Tips

To identify the Downy Woodpecker, look for its black upperparts and wings, contrasted by a white back, throat, and belly, and white spotting on the wings. Two white bars, one above and one below the eye, are also distinctive. The tail is black with white outer feathers barred with black. The male's red patch on the back of the head is a key differentiator from the female. The Downy can be distinguished from the similar Hairy Woodpecker by its smaller size and the proportion of the bill to the head; the Downy's bill is shorter than its head, unlike the Hairy's, which is about equal to head length.

Habitat

The Downy Woodpecker is native to forested areas across North America, favoring deciduous woods but also found in mixed forests. They avoid the deserts of the southwest and the northern tundra.

Distribution

This species is widespread across the United States and Canada, with seven recognized subspecies varying slightly in range and appearance. They are mostly permanent residents, though some northern populations may migrate southward or move to lower elevations in mountainous regions during winter.

Behaviour

Downy Woodpeckers are known for their agility, often seen foraging on trees, picking at the bark surface in summer and digging deeper in winter. They are mostly sedentary, with some northern birds migrating south in colder months. These birds are also comfortable in suburban settings, especially in winter, where they can be seen visiting feeders for suet and peanuts.

Song & Calls

The Downy Woodpecker's vocal repertoire includes a distinctive short "pik" call, with a half-second interval between notes. Their drumming, a form of communication and territory marking, is slower than that of other North American woodpeckers and can be likened to four taps.

Breeding

Breeding begins in the first season possible, with pairs often returning to the same nesting site. They excavate nest cavities in dead trees or limbs, with the male doing much of the work. Females lay 4-5 white eggs, which are incubated by both parents in shifts. The young are born with a weight of about 1.6 grams and are fully grown by day 17 or 18.

Similar Species

The Hairy Woodpecker is the most similar in appearance to the Downy Woodpecker but can be differentiated by its larger size, longer bill, and lack of black spots on the white tail feathers.

Diet and Feeding

Downy Woodpeckers primarily feed on insects, including the larvae of the European corn borer, a significant agricultural pest. They also consume seeds and berries and are known to visit backyard feeders for supplementary food sources like suet and shelled peanuts.

Conservation status

The IUCN Red List classifies the Downy Woodpecker as Least Concern, indicating a stable population without significant threats to its conservation status.

Downy Woodpecker Sounds


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Downy Woodpecker Fun Facts

Did you know?
In North America, the Downy Woodpecker is seen as a symbol of bravery and hard work.

Downy Woodpeckers on Birda

Sightings

More Woodpeckers

A photo of a Bay Woodpecker (Blythipicus pyrrhotis) , male

Bay Woodpecker

Blythipicus pyrrhotis
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