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Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

The most common woodpecker at my feeders is the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). I love the way they hitch up and down and around the trees and feeders! Downys love sunflower seed (especially in the chip form), peanuts, and suet.

They are the smallest of the our wood- peckers measuring in at about 6.5 inches from tail to beak. The male’s bright red spot at the back of his head is the lone splash of color in the otherwise black and white bird.

But, if you look in your field guide you will see that the Downy has a nearly identical but larger and less common cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) . While neither bird is particularly hairy or downy looking, they are named for the very fine, hair-like feath- ers that surround their beaks. This helps to protect their nostrils while chipping away at tree bark.

When you see the birds together on the same feeder or tree, it looks as if the Hairy is the parent and the Downy is the baby bird! This is the perfect time to look for the subtle differences between the two species. There are differences at both ends of these cousins, so you should be able to make an ID no matter which end of the bird you can see! First, the beak: compare the length of the bill to the profile of the head. The beak of the Downy will be about half the length of the head’s “thickness”, but the beak of the Hairy will be equal to the head length. Males have another form of ID; look at the red spot at the nape of the neck. The Downy will have a solid red spot, but the Hairy’s spot will be divided by a black line. Lastly, Downys have dots, dots on their outer white tail feathers while Hairys do not. Now there are always individuals that don’t conform to the rules, but for the most part, these are excellent field marks to help with your ID skills. Remember: Downys have dots!!!

By Ruth Simmons

FALL 2005