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Downy Woodpecker

Description

The Downy Woodpecker is North America's smallest woodpecker at only 6-7 inches (15-17 cm). Besides his size, the downy can be identified by a proportionately short beak (less than the length of its head), a white stripe down his back and a white underbelly.

All adults will have black markings like stripes across their backs and wing tops, and adult males have a small red patch at the nape of their necks.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Territory

The range of the Downy Woodpecker in enormous, stretching from Florida and Southern California in the continental United States to Southern Alaska and Newfoundland in eastern Canada. They can be found from sea level to upwards of 6,000 feet above sea level.

As expected they are attracted to woodland and wooded areas but will readily adapt to suburban and urban living as well provided there are enough trees in the area. Forests and woodlands need to be primarily deciduous and even in highlands or other areas dominated by evergreens they will locate in mixed forests.

Behavior

The downy woodpecker is an insectivore; primary prey being spiders, bark beetles, ants and larvae. You will see this hunter favoring probing and gleaning over drilling and chiseling.

Downy woodpeckers nest in dead or dying trees, especially those with significant heart rot. Nests can often be found close to the top of a broken off tree but they will also use fence or utility poles; this species prefers deciduous trees for housebuilding. Some pairs will stay together through the year, and the supply of food available seems to be a factor in determining whether mated pairs stay together past the breeding season. Where food is more plentiful it is more likely that pairs will stay together year-round.

Drumming is common among downy woodpeckers however unlike other species the female downy is often the winner in the nest location discussion while the male will do most of the excavating. Downy woodpeckers are unlikely to use nestboxes under any circumstances, but will also not return to a nesting hole in subsequent years.

Quick Facts

  1. In winter when food is at its scarcest, the Downy woodpecker often seen in mixed-species flocks. This behavior allows the woodpecker to be less vigilant of predators and seemingly more successful in foraging for food. Sometimes they will join in other bird species in "mobbing" predators, but usually at the fringes of such a group.
  2. Downy woodpeckers have gender-based foraging preferences. Even when they stay together over a non-breeding season, they won't compete with each other for food. The males appear to have a preference for smaller branches and hunt more in the canopy of the tree. Females hunt more frequently on the trunks and larger branches, although when male downies are removed form territory the female will take over his hunting areas.
  3. Because of its relatively small size, the Downy Woodpecker is able to use food sources that larger, heavier woodpeckers cannot. The downy can cling to the woody stems of some weeds and feed on the gall larvae that make their homes there. They seek out the larger galls and use the larvae's own exit tube to pull it from the gall.
  4. There are at least six different "races" of downy woodpeckers across their expansive range. The colder the average air temperature, the larger the wingspan of the downy. The downy with the whitest markings is in the southeastern Unites States while varieties in the north and northwest of the range have more cream, pale grey and buff underbellies.

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