For the Birds Radio Program: Downy Woodpecker

Original Air Date: March 28, 1997

Today’s program is about the tiny standoffish prude of the Northwoods. 3:21

Audio missing


One of the most endearing of backyard birds is the Downy Woodpecker. This smallest of northland woodpeckers has almost identical plumage to the Hairy Woodpecker but is smaller, with a tiny stump of a beak and little black spots on the white outer-tail feathers. These one-ounce bug eaters associate with chickadees and nuthatches, moving about in loose flocks through the winter forests. This time of year, downies still associate with these flocks for feeding, but with the increasing day length and generally warming temperatures, they can afford to spend a smaller percentage of each day feeding and spend more and more of their time drumming territorial calls and excavating nest holes. They virtually always choose a well-decaying dead branch for their nest hole. The tree is nice and hard on the outside, but inside rotten and soft enough to scoop out for a nest chamber.

Baby downies hatch out completely naked–not even a wisp of down to begin with. It takes the babies over 3 weeks to feather out and make their first flight. Meanwhile, while they are still stuck in the nest, they’re incredibly noisy–I’ve found more Downy Woodpecker nests than any other woods species because the babies cry so much. You’d think that noisemaking wouldn’t be particularly adaptive, since it should alert predators to their presence, but there seem to be a pretty steady supply of Downies despite the habit.

Downy Woodpeckers are intelligent and confiding little creatures. I’ve held injured ones on many occasions, and although their tiny beaks can pack a wallop, they very quickly figure out that I’m not going to hurt them and calm right down. Within an hour of getting some, I’ve taught them to gently probe between the fingers of my closed fist to pull out meal worms. Injured ones are often content to perch on my shoulder as I go about my daily routine, which is fun but requires that I wear a washable t-shirt.

Normally, downies are suspicious and wary of people. People have often taught wild chickadees and finches to come to a hand for food, but Downy Woodpeckers would simply not approve of that. And their stand-offish ways extend to their mates. Although mated pairs often live near each other or even share the same winter territory, they sleep in separate quarters and don’t seem to pay each other much attention until the drumming season. But once that beak tapping starts, they get into romantic mode, though it’s hard to observe their actual courtship and mating, since they’re apparently as prudish as they are stand-offish. But even during the height of the breeding season, downies have separate bedrooms. At least they’re egalitarian about child-rearing. Males incubate the eggs or young at night, females during the day.

Although their love-making isn’t exactly what we’d call romantic, it works for them. This is the time of year when downies are becoming as twitterpated as they get–every time you hear that familiar tapping remember–it’s the sound of love.