Woodpeckers are hardy, interesting birds, with bold behaviors, tenacious personalities and instantly recognizable characteristics. As is true with many things, size doesn’t always matter, and sometimes – as with woodpeckers – the smallest can be one of the most memorable.
Name: Downy Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Picoides pubescens
Scientific Family: Picidae (Woodpeckers)
Habitat: Young open woodlands and forests, as well as weedy fields with seed-bearing flowers and larger plant stalks for these tiny birds to cling. Deciduous trees are preferred, though these birds are also found in mixed pine forests. Adaptable to a variety of habitats, downy woodpeckers are also found in orchards, parks, cemeteries and both urban and suburban areas where suitable trees exist.
Range: Widespread throughout the United States and Canada, as far north as southern and central Alaska and throughout the Canadian boreal forest. Populations are found throughout the continental United States, but are more sparse in the open Great Plains and are absent from the extreme southwest, including southeastern California and southern areas of Arizona and New Mexico into western Texas. This bird is a year-round resident of its range.
Downy woodpeckers are tiny, black-and-white woodpeckers smaller than most colorful songbirds, but similar in size to bluebirds and titmice. They are snowy white underneath, with a broad white patch on the back as well. The face is striped black-and-white with a black crown, and males have a red patch on the nape while females have a black nape. The wings are mostly black with checkered white barring, and the center of the tail is also black, while the white outer tail feathers show small black dots that can be difficult to see. The bill is short and nub-like, tucked into rictal bristles and notably shorter than the overall length of the head.
These birds behave in typical woodpecker fashion, hitching themselves along tree trunks and branches as they forage for insects. What isn’t typical, however, is because of their small size, they can forage the same way on thicker weed and reed stalks, such as cattails, sunflower stalks or rushes. They are also less likely to damage structures than other, larger woodpeckers, though they may still drill or drum on houses, fences or other suitable wood.
After the drama of Hurricane Irma, downy woodpeckers have a special place for me – an energetic male downy woodpecker was the first bird to reappear in my yard after the storm. He happily investigated many of the broken branches in the laurel oak trees, nipping choice insect tidbits from the newly exposed wood, and nimbly mincing along the new branch patterns in the backyard canopy. To me, this is a wonderful sign of the resiliency and adaptability of birds, as he was taking full advantage of the backyard post-storm chaos. Other birds would soon follow – blue jays demanding peanuts, cardinals nipping at seeds and insects, haughty mockingbirds, insistently barking red-bellied woodpeckers and other passersby – but I won’t forget that undaunted downy.