What’s not to like about a Downy Woodpecker! This handsome, active, vocal species is our smallest and most widespread woodpecker, found year-round from coast to coast. Decked out in black and white, the red patch on the nape of the males is the only color contrast. This red is the method for differentiating the guys from the gals. In females the color is absent. Fine. Now, how do you tell a Downy from a Hairy woodpecker? Seen side by side, the Downy is two-thirds the size of the Hairy. Only one in view? Check the bill length relative to the depth of the head. The Downy has a bill which is shorter than the depth of the head. In the case of a Hairy Woodpecker, the bill is almost equal to the head depth.
Once you have learned to differentiate the two visually, listen carefully to the vocalizations when you know which specie is making them. You can identify woodpeckers by their call notes as well. Downy: a soft “peek” and light, musical “whinny.” Hairy: a sudden “PIK!” and less musical, louder “whinny.” Try it, it’s fun! Of course Downy Woodpeckers also use a form of song substitution as well: drumming. Drumming is used to define a territory, attract a mate, and maintain contact between individuals.
Woodpeckers are “engineered” differently from other birds. Their toe arrangement is two toes forward and two backward, allowing them to easily cling to vertical surfaces (called zygodactyl feet). Their tail feathers (rectrices) are particularly stiff and act as a prop when pecking. Bills are a combination chisel and hammer. The tongue is long and barbed for capturing insects. Even the saliva is extra sticky for this same purpose.
Downy Woodpeckers associate with open wooded habitat. They excavate cavities for housing their nests. They are readily attracted to seed and suet feeders where they provide hours of entertainment and enjoyment. Aspen Song® Nut & Fruit Woodpecker Mix is a perfect mix for attracting these ubiquitous denizens of the woods. Use a feeder designed specifically for woodpeckers: one that has access only through a thick wood side and without perches. Such a seed holder is no problem for a bird with a long bill and tongue and zygodactyl feet. The other birds will wish they were so lucky!
Suet is another great way to attract Downy Woodpeckers but should be reserved for fall and winter use only. The high fat content can be problematic in hot weather (risk of rancidity) and cause feather loss on the face of the birds. In winter months suet can be an important source of energy at a time when keeping the metabolic fires going strong is important!
Jackson, Jerome A. and Henri R. Ouellet. 2002. Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.