Sunday, January 27, 2008

Common Feeder Birds: Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker Female

My sister-in-law described a bird to me that she thought was a woodpecker. She told me it was black and white and striped like a skunk. At first, I was confused, but then realized she was describing one of our most common woodpeckers, the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).

Downy Woodpeckers live throughout the United States and are found year-round as far north-west as Alaska and as far south-east as the tip of Florida. That is a huge climate range!

They are a little over six inches in length with a white chest, black and white dotted wings and a white patch on their back. This patch is what reminded my sister-in-law of a skunk. They have a black head with a white stripe above the eye and another white stripe near the bill. They have a black tail with white outer feathers and small dark bars on the edges. They have a small, pointed bill. The male has a small red patch on the back of the head that the females lack. The juveniles will sometimes have a small red patch on their forehead.

Downy Woodpecker Male

Downy Woodpecker Juvenile

Their second part of their scientific name, "pubescens", refers to the white tuft of nasal bristles near the bill. These modified feathers help protect the nasal cavity from debris that is formed by chiseling and hammering on the bark of trees.

Downy Woodpeckers are fascinating to watch as they propel themselves up the side of a tree, using their tail as a spring, hopping along, stopping from time to time to investigate a nook or cranny that may hide a juicy insect. Their bill is less chisel-shaped than that of other woodpeckers, and they use it like a pick for dissecting insect tunnels just under the bark. The bill is also used like a pair of tweezers to pick tiny insect eggs from the surface of leaves and bark. Their small size allow Downy Woodpeckers to perch on plant stems like that of the goldenrod. One of their favorite foods are the larvae found inside of goldenrod galls. For fascinating information about the insect behind these galls, go here.

Goldenrod Gall

Goldenrod Gall Larvae

One day we were watching our bird feeders when a Cooper's Hawk appeared. We watched a female Downy Woodpecker freeze in position against the trunk of the tree. I was amazed at how this bird never moved a muscle, but remained completely still. When the hawk flew to another tree, the Downy quickly shifted positions to the other side of the trunk, to not be discovered and remained ever so still. Finally, the hawk gave up and the Downy went back to foraging. Chris, our manager, commented on how it was like playing hide and seek, but the consequences were much higher if the bird had been discovered.

Downy Woodpeckers love to eat suet, peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds at the feeders. My next post will be about the Hairy Woodpecker that looks almost the same as the Downy Woodpecker and can cause confusion with its identification.


1 comment:

Catbird said...

Great blog Janet, keep up the good work! I can't wait to see what's next!