Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker © TGrey

We’re most aware of woodpeckers in the early winter months when the woods are pretty much silent except for a solitary tap, tap, tap. It’s not a loud tap, but it is distinct. Often it will be the Downy Woodpecker (picoides pubescens), the smallest woodpecker in North America (7 in.), and one of 5 woodpecker species present in the Park (the others are: Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker). It is usually alone, as they don’t associate with their own kind until spring.

As spring approaches, the Downies with their black and white-striped head, black upperparts with white in center of back and white spots on their wings, change their behavior toward each other. For one thing, their tapping becomes a quite different unbroken trrrrrrrrr lasting several seconds. This tapping, known as drumming, is no longer simply an effort to get food, but a means of communication to other Downies that this is “my” territory. It is also the first attempt to attract a mate. Both sexes drum.

After the drumming unites the pair, courtship begins, resulting in a bonding of the pair and excavation of a cavity in a living or dead tree as high as 50 feet above the ground. It requires quite a bit of work for both birds, over a week or more, to carve a gourd-shaped cavity, into which the female lays 4 to 5 pure white eggs that both parents incubate for 12 days until they hatch.

Female Downy Woodpecker © TGrey

In addition to the characteristics used to identify the Downy Woodpecker, here are some fascinating facts about woodpecker behavior, anatomy, and feeding habits that are shared by all of the woodpecker species found at Edgewood.

As well as the sound of their drumming, Downy Woodpeckers have a pik and a whinnying call. These calls are made by both sexes, and can be heard during the breeding season. The whinnying call is a string of high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward the end; the call lasts about 2 seconds. Excited birds also give a very sharp pik note, which may be repeated several times. Examples of these calls can be found here.

The Birds of North America. No 194, 1995; No 166, 1995; No 555, 2000.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Various publications.
Fisher, C. and Morlan, J. 1996. Birds of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Learn More…
Downy Woodpecker at All About Birds. This guide includes a number of sounds.
Downy Woodpecker in the Audubon Field Guide.

By Lee Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, December 2002, as part of an article about all of the woodpeckers that can be seen at Edgewood.