The Downy Woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker. Downys have a black and white spotted appearance with a white belly. The male has a red spot on the back of his head whereas females do not. This woodpecker has a mostly black tail with white outer feathers. These outer white tail feathers will often show black spots on Downy Woodpeckers. The Downy uses its strong, chisel-shaped bill to excavate wood in search of dinner and to make a nest cavity.
Downy Woodpeckers look very similar to the larger Hairy Woodpecker. Downies are only about 6-7″ long, just a little bigger than a House Sparrow, whereas Hairies are 9-10″ long, nearly the size of a skinny robin. Size can be difficult to judge so I compare the size of the bill relative to the head. Hairy woodpeckers have a longer and more substantial bill that is very close in length to the depth of the head. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter, smaller bill that is shorter than the depth of the head. With practice it becomes easier to tell the two species apart.
Habitat and Habits
Downy Woodpeckers will inhabit any type of wooded area and are one of the more commonly seen woodpecker species. They are permanent residents that do not migrate and their habitat and range covers most of North America. As with all woodpeckers, the Downy uses its tail feathers as a prop, almost like a kangaroo uses its tail, to balance on a tree trunk. Compare this to nuthatches that use only their feet. Like all other woodpeckers, the Downy uses a cavity in a tree trunk to nest.
The diet of the Downy Woodpecker consists mostly of insects, even in the wintertime. The woodpecker’s common method of searching within tree bark for bugs is well known though they will also eat berries and nuts if available. A suet feeder or peanut feeder is a great way to entice woodpeckers to a backyard feeding station and they will occasionally come to a feeder stocked with a mix containing sunflower chips or peanuts. A log suet feeder works great not only for Downies and other woodpeckers, but chickadees and nuthatches as well.