What is a Downy Woodpecker?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A downy woodpecker or Picoides pubescens is a small bird native to North America. Downy woodpeckers are extremely common and can be found even in far northern reaches, as long as there is habitat available to support them. These birds are a familiar sight to many North American residents and their populations are stable and healthy, leading scientists to classify them as “least concern” in terms of conservation.

Downy woodpeckers surround their nests with lichen to help them blend in.
Downy woodpeckers surround their nests with lichen to help them blend in.

The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker found in North America, and looks very similar to the hairy woodpecker. These birds have black and white plumage that may be black and cream or tan in some regions. Their undersides are white to cream, and they have distinctive barred black and white wings and tail feathers. Black and white bands are seen on the head, with a small splotch of white on the back of the head in males.

Downy woodpeckers prefer deciduous forests. The downy woodpecker often stays in the same area throughout for life, although birds in areas that grow cold during the winter may move south with migratory bird populations to avoid the bad weather. They nest in rotten wood that they hollow out to create a cavity, surrounding the space with bark and lichen to make it blend in. The birds eat insects, seeds, and berries, which they find by breaking down rotten bark with their beaks. This particular woodpecker species is often described as “acrobatic” and the birds are indeed very active, especially in their search for food.

In nature, the birds make a number of calls to communicate with other birds. One common sound is a series of high pitched squeaks, followed by a rapidly repeated high pitched “pik pik pik” sound. Downy woodpeckers also drum to communicate. While people often think that the drumming is connected to feeding and nesting, the birds are actually very quiet when they are hunting for food and establishing nests. The clattering sounds the downy woodpecker makes by drumming rapidly on wood are used to signal woodpeckers in the area.

These birds are frequent visitors at birdfeeders and are particularly fond of suet, a treat some birders leave out to attract neighborhood birds. The presence of a downy woodpecker in an area is highly beneficial, as these birds help keep insect populations down and, like other birds, distribute seeds from berries, grasses, and other plants through their feces. While some people may find the drumming irritating, it does not harm the trees.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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