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Downy Woodpecker

(Picoides pubescens)
Banded November 7, 1997 Carmel, Indiana

General Information

The Downy Woodpecker may be the most familiar woodpecker in North America. It occurs throughout North America where woodlands are found, being absent only from tundra regions of Canada and Alaska, and from southern Texas. It is virtually identical to the Hairy Woodpecker, but is much smaller and with a much shorter bill.

Downy Woodpeckers readily visit backyard feeders where suet and peanut butter are offered. Their familiar drumming rolls are commonly heard in the spring, and have awakened many when they choose a drainspout, mailbox or other metallic surface to announce their territory and attract a mate.


Only 15 to 17 cm long, the Downy Woodpecker is very small compared to most North American woodpeckers. Its contrasting black and white plumage gives it a formal tuxedo like appearance.

Female Downy Woodpecker
Figure 1 - Female Downy Woodpecker


Adult Female Downy Woodpecker
Figure 2 - Adult Female Downy Woodpecker


The short, straight, chisel-like bill is especially suited for probing for insects and insect larvae, and for chipping a cavity for a nest site.

The adult male sports a red patch on the back of his head.

Adult Male
Figure 3 - Adult Male


Adult Female
Figure 4 - Adult Female Downy Woodpecker


The adult female lacks the male’s red patch on the back of the head. Instead, the white supercilia stripes on each side of the head often join together.

The strongly contrasting black and white plumage is especially apparent on the back and upper wing.

Figure 5 - Upperwing


 Flank and Underwing
Figure 6 - Flank and Underwing


The underwing of the Downy Woodpecker is gray and white.

Like most woodpeckers, the central tail feathers are rigid and pointed. This enables the bird to support itself against the trunk of a tree.

Downy Woodpecker Undertail
Figure 7 - Downy Woodpecker Undertail


Downy Woodpecker Undertail
Figure 8 - Downy Woodpecker Undertail

The black bands on the tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker are often complete. This contrasts with those of the Hairy Woodpecker where the black bands are broken and incomplete. This characteristic, along with size and culmen length, are useful to separate these two species in the hand.


Nesting Behavior

Sexes are similar, but the male sports a red patch on the back of its head. Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. The female usually selects the nest site in a dead tree or branch. Excavation of the cavity, however, is mostly accomplished by the male. From 3 to 6 eggs are laid in the cavity nest, and hatch in just under two weeks. Fledged young stay with the adults for the first few weeks. More than one brood may be raised in a breeding season.

Feeding habits are different. Males feed and are more active high in the trees. Females tend to feed from the middle of a tree on down. If a female tries to feed higher, the male will often chase her back to the lower levels.

Banding Recoveries

According to records at the Bird Banding Lab, a total of 120,033 Downy Woodpeckers have been banded since 1955. Of these, a total of 3,840 have been recovered. Downy Woodpeckers have been shown to be partially migratory. Northern birds may move south as much as 1200 km in winter months, especially along the east coast (Winkler et al. 1995). Individuals banded here at Chipper Woods appear to remain year round.

Conservation Status

In addition to its popularity with backyard bird feeding enthusiasts, the Downy Woodpecker provides a valuable service to our ecosystems. Its preference for insects, especially wood boring larvae, is of great economic benefit as many destructive insects pests are consumed. Overall, census data indicates that populations are holding steady, although population declines are occurring in some areas.

The availability of suitable nest sites plays an important role in population distribution. Managing woodlands to retain dead trees and snags for nesting will go a long way toward maintaining a healthy population of these and other cavity nesting birds.

Literature Cited

Winkler, H., D. A. Christie, and D. Nurney. 1995. Woodpeckers. A guide to the woodpeckers of the world. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 406 Pp.

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