For the Birds Radio Program: Downy Woodpecker

Original Air Date: April 3, 1991

Modified from 3/24/89 (3:40)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker)

Snow will certainly fall at least once or twice more this year, and we’re not supposed to plant tomatoes until the end of May, but as far as Downy Woodpeckers are concerned, spring is here. Days are long enough now for them to be able to get enough to eat with time left over, and they use the extra time for courting. Males and females both drum—the sound apparently serves both as a territorial warning to other pairs and a romantic duet to seal the pair bond before eggs are laid. It’s an awfully loud rum for a bird that weighs in at only 3/4 of an ounce.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker)

Although it’s difficult to establish whether downies regularly mate for life, there are records of pairs staying together for 4 years. It’s debatable whether these pairs stay together simply because of proximity—downies don’t tend to travel far from their home, so they don’t have much chance to meet anyone new—or whether their pair bond is an inherently strong one as in Canada Geese.

Although downies are courting now, and a few have been caught in the act of making baby Downies, most of them won’t start to mate until late April or May. They dig out their nest hole in dead wood, unlike their larger relative the Hairy Woodpecker, which usually pecks its holes in living wood. The babies are completely naked at hatching, with no feathers or down, and would be vulnerable to cold temperatures if they were hatched earlier than late May or June. By the time they are hatched, there’s also much more insect food available.

The female lays generally 4-5 glossy white eggs. There’s no need for a woodpecker’s eggs to be camouflaged deep inside a cavity, and the white color may help the parents to see the eggs in the dark nest hole. The father incubates the eggs all night, and the mother incubates by day. It takes about 12 days for the eggs to hatch.

The young quickly become extraordinarily noisy. I’ve found lots of downy nests simply because the young make such a squawk. It seems like a dangerous habit, since predators are far more alert than birdwatchers, but apparently downies continue to survive in spite of their noisiness. By the time the babies are 2 weeks old, they wait for their meals right at the nest hole. Since their nest is often at eye level, they can easily be found if you key in on their calls. Within the next ten days, the young are ready to fly.

Baby downies are especially vulnerable to cats—I’ve seen more than one be killed by cats whose owners were too soft hearted to keep their predacious pets indoors or on a leash during the nesting season. Some people claim that it’s okay for cats to kill birds because predation is part of the natural world, but they forget that unlike natural predators that kill strictly for food, house cats are well-fed without a wild bird diet, and are usually just toying with a bird when they kill it. Dr. Stanley Temple, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, found that house cats are a significant and serious cause of mortality for many species of birds. My own personal cat is kept indoors all day—once in a while I let her out at night, when birds are still and won’t attract her attention, but no matter how pitiful she acts, she’s stuck inside all day. Downy Woodpeckers are too precious to sacrifice as toys for even the sweetest kitty.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”