For the Birds Radio Program: Downy Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Sept. 20, 2004

Downy Woodpeckers are dealing as well as they can with Duluth’s massive hawk migration.

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Downy Woodpecker

Right now, birds that will remain in the northland all winter are preparing for winter. They feast on autumnal abundance, putting on a layer of fat that, with luck, will help tide them over through blizzards and the fiercest cold snaps. Our feeders can help now and through the winter when we provide black oil sunflower seeds, white millet for ground feeders such as doves and White-throated Sparrows, and suet.

Birds are also putting on additional feathers to thicken their insulation. Birds sport about 11 percent more feathers in winter than in summer. Again, good nutrition helps birds grow all this new tissue.

As we look at our feeders, teeming with migrants and winter residents, one of my favorite visitors is the littlest woodpecker of all. Like their brethren, Downy Woodpeckers are putting on fat and feathers, and taking another important step in their winter preparations—making sure they each have a snug tree cavity to sleep in on those long winter nights, and to hide out in during the harshest weather. Downies are one of the more adaptable species, being found everywhere in the lower 48 states except the most arid parts of the southwest, and through most of Canada into southern Alaska. John James Audubon wrote of the species in 1840, “It seems to accommodate itself to circumstances, and to live contented everywhere.”

These handsome little black-and-white birds usually behave as we’d expect woodpeckers to, hitching their way up tree trunks and branches, yet their bills are as dainty as those of orioles or blackbirds. Indeed, looking at bill size is the simplest way to distinguish Downy Woodpeckers from their larger but otherwise very similar relatives, Hairy Woodpeckers. When you’re used to seeing both species at your feeders, it’s easy to tell them apart by size, but in the woods, size becomes trickier. Just remember that Hairy Woodpeckers have long beaks—about as long as their heads. Downy Woodpeckers have proportionally shorter, more conical beaks.

Downy Woodpeckers feed on insects on and in the crevices of tree bark. And males and females often stay in the same territory. To minimize competition for food, males tend to forage on small branches while females feed on larger branches and tree trunks, but that’s a statistical comparison—individual birds often break those statistical rules just for a lark. They spend a lot of time feeding on goldenrod galls, too. When Pileated Woodpeckers are near, Downy Woodpeckers very often follow them, taking advantage of the larger excavations pileateds make to pick out the smaller insects the pileateds didn’t notice or bother with. This is a well-documented association which I’ve witnessed in my own neighborhood. Every time a Pileated Woodpecker flies from my box elder tree, a downy appears within a couple of minutes.

Tasty as insects are, Downy Woodpeckers are not particularly interested in a low-carb diet. They also take sap, and a few figure out how to sip the nectar from hummingbird feeders. Downy Woodpeckers also eat some seeds and fruits. At feeders, they take sunflower seeds, peanuts, and their favorite feeder fare, suet. Because of the wide variety of foods in their diets, they’re very adaptable. When I was licensed to care for injured wild birds, I often noticed that when someone brought me a new Downy Woodpecker, adult or young, it calmed down almost immediately, and within an hour was taking mealworms from my hand. This adaptable, easy-going nature helped them survive—they were less likely than other birds to fray wing feathers, tire themselves, or re-injure themselves desperately trying to get away every time I entered the room.

Living right on the path of hawk migration through Duluth, my backyard birds have to deal with hawks passing through a great many times each day in fall. When a low-flying Sharp-shinned Hawk or Merlin enters the scene, my Downy Woodpeckers usually hitch to the opposite side of the tree and hold stock still. They’re small, and though they can pack a wallop with their little bill, they are relatively easy for predators to catch on the wing, since their flight is fairly slow. On several occasions I’ve seen hawks pluck downies out of the air, though I’ve yet to see one grab a downy that was hiding on a tree trunk. Of course, even on tree trunks, downies are vulnerable to cats—the very first bird I ever saw killed by a cat was a Downy Woodpecker. But despite their fragility, Downy Woodpeckers who make it through their first year increase their life expectancy sharply. The oldest banded Downy Woodpecker on record survived 11 years and 11 months. As I stock up my feeders, I like thinking that I’m giving my own backyard downies a chance to break that record.