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Downy Woodpecker

The drumming of Downy Woodpeckers is a sign that winter is coming to an end.  They can be attracted to your backyard with suet, and seed feeders, water, and a little landscaping.

Identification and Pictures

(Picoides pubescens)

Downy WoodpeckerThey are the smallest, and most common backyard woodpeckers in North America, about 6 ˝ inches. The top of the head is black and they have a fairly small bill. The sides of the head are white with a black mask that extends from the eye to the back of the head.

They have a white back, and belly.  The wings and inner tail feathers are black with white patches.  The outer tail feathers are white with black patches. Males have a red nape patch.


Photo by Keith Lee.  The camera I use is the Canon EOS 40D and a 70-300 zoom lens.

Downy woodpeckers can easily be mistaken for the larger Hairy woodpecker, which is closer to 9 ˝ inches.  Both birds were named for the feathers between the bill, and the forehead.  The Downy has a patch of downy feathers, while the Hairy woodpecker's are more bristly.  The two birds can be distinguished by the bill size compared to their heads.  The Downy woodpecker's bill is about half the width of the head, and the Hairy woodpecker’s bill is about the same as the width of the head.

There are others such as Ladder-backed or Nuttall’s woodpecker that look similar.  Two other woodpeckers that look similar but are easier to distinguish from the Downy are the Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers.

Song and Call

The Downy uses drumming as a call.  Both sexes drum on wood.  They also give a high-pitched descending whinny of notes as well as a sharp pick.  During courtship they make a queek-queek sound.

Note on some browsers you will not be able to see or use the drop down sound list.  If you can't use it try the sound links below.

Click to hear call and drum soundDowny woodpecker female
Click to hear Chirp
Click to hear drum sound


There are three types of pecking.  Loud rapid drumming on hollow trees can be to define a territory, keep track of a mate, or in search of a mate.  Softer pecking is usually searching for food, and they will chip away at trees.  The third kind of pecking is cavity excavation, and is usually done in soft or partially rotted wood.

Habitat and Range

They can be found year-round throughout most of the U.S. and Canada.  Preferred habitat is open forests, orchard, river groves, and backyards with trees, and shrubbery.  

Photo by Keith Lee.  The camera I use is the Canon EOS 40D and a 70-300 zoom lens.

Nesting and Breeding

Downy Woodpeckers breed in woodlands, orchards, and parks with scattered trees from April to July. 

Members of a pair will have separate overlapping territories until late winter.  At this time they will begin to coordinate activities, drumming on trees.  Courtship, and defending of a territory begin in spring with behavior such as chasing in flight, and up trees, bill waving, and loud calls.

Both birds work together to excavate a cavity 10 to 15 inches deep with an entrance hole of about 2 ˝ inches. The nest hole will usually be in a tree trunk or limb, often on the underside of a limb.

Both birds will incubate 3 to 6 small white glossy eggs for around two weeks.  They only have one brood but will replace lost clutches of eggs.  Both adults will feed the young, which will climb to the entrance in around 17 days, and leave the nest in 30 days.  The young birds will rely on the adults for another two weeks.  Downy woodpeckers are generally year round residents.

Food and Feeding

About 75 percent of their diet is animal matter mostly of harmful insects such as beetles, caterpillars, ants, and weevils.  These friendly birds are likely to forage for insects in trees next to your house.  they also eat fruits, seeds, and nuts. They can be attracted to both suet, and seed feeders.  Beef suet is preferred, but they will also come for cracked corn, sunflower seeds, doughnuts, and fruit.

downy woodpecker Like most birds that visit backyards, food, cover, and water will attract them. Downy Woodpeckers do not drink at birdbaths as often as other birds so food and cover are a priority.

Hand feeding

Downy woodpeckers will eat out of your hand.  The trick is to get them used to you being by a feeder, then hold sunflower seeds in your hand.

Watch video of hand feeding Downy woodpeckers and chickadees. 

For more on food and feeding click here.
For more on feeders click here.

woodpecker posters Woodpecker posters

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