Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens

Audubon print
Smallest woodpecker in North America; nuthatch-size
Male has red patch on back of head
Female missing red patch
Bill length less than width of head; dark spots on white tail feathers
Probes bark for insects; stiff tail used as prop
Feasts on poison ivy fruits
Monogamous pair forms in late winter
Tail supports male as he excavates nest
Female removing debris from nest hole
Juvenile callis from nest; 3 to 8 eggs in clutch
Male feeds very young daughter
Juvenile male ready to eat but not to fly
Juvenile male; 2 not 3 forward-pointing toes
Juvenile female still growing tail feathers
Male feeding nearly adult-size son
Independent female juvenile

At Salter Grove, the Downy Woodpecker has been observed throughout the year along all trails and lawn edges, especially where there are trees with decaying limbs.  Its high-pitched whinnying call is usually what alerts visitors that the smallest woodpecker in north America is on the move nearby.  It makes little noise when it pries into deadwood and bark for beetles and ants.

It joins other insectivorous bird species rather than other Downy Woodpeckers as foraging companions outside the breeding season.  It has been suggested that joining these mixed-species flocks provides members with more watchful eyes for avoiding predators at the same time that the greater commotion of the group stirs up more prey.  The Downy Woodpecker appears quite as acrobatic as the Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch that form these mixed-species flocks. 

The Downy Woodpecker occurs in the open deciduous forests or woodland of North America including most of Canada and the United States.  It enlarges natural cavities in dead trees or large limbs for use as nest sites as well as roosting sites in the winter.  It has become more common in parks and suburbs with plentiful trees.  

It is a common visitor to feeders where suet or peanut butter is provided.  It has been observed to probe long and hard for dried seeds in the persistent dry fruiting spike of the common mullein, a well-established plant from the Old World.

It is easy to confuse the Downy Woodpecker with the Hairy Woodpecker because they do co-occur in some localities and are nearly identical in their plumage.  The smaller Downy is about the size of a House Sparrow whereas the Hairy is larger, closer to the size of a robin or cardinal.  The Downy has a thinner, more delicate bill that is one third the size of its head in profile.  On the other hand, the Hairy's bill is stouter and is the same size as its head in profile.  Also, the Hairy is missing the black spots that the Downy has on the white outer tail feathers.

At Salter Grove, the Downy is present throughout the year whereas the infrequent Hairy has mostly been seen outside the breeding season, suggesting that they were likely young birds passing through as they prospect for suitable habitat to establish a new home.