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Downey Woodpecker

A Brief Overview of the Downey Woodpecker

If you live in North America and have a birdfeeder in your backyard, it is quite likely that you’ve been visited by a downey woodpecker at one point or another. This agile little bird is found throughout most of the United States and even a large portion of Canada year round. Whether you are a beginning ornithologist or simply curious about some of the fauna that frequents your neighborhood, this guide will provide you with plenty of information to familiarize yourself with one of the smaller and more acrobatic members of the woodpecker family.

Physical Description

The downey woodpecker has a striking black and white pattern, reminiscent of a checkerboard across its body. The male of the species is easily identified by a small red patch that is located on the back of the head. The black and white feathers allow this bird to blend in well with winter snows and delicate tree branches; favorite feeding spots.

With a wingspan of only 10 – 12 inches, and a body length of only 5 – 7, the downey woodpecker is able to use agility and spryness to be able to get to branches that other, larger woodpeckers tend to avoid. In fact, the downey woodpecker is only ¾ the size of its cousin the hairy woodpecker, a species it is often confused with.

These birds have a decent lifespan, considering their habitat and size. They average 10 – 11 years of life, but the longest living downey on record lived to be 11 years and 11 months old.


Downey woodpeckers can be found across most of North America, but live primarily in deciduous trees and bushes that are found in open woodlands and empty lots. They have also been known to set up house in people’s backyards, city parks, and certain orchards as well. In rare cases, these woodpeckers have also been found living inside of walls of buildings.

Feeding Habits

Their small size allows these woodpeckers to forage in branches and twigs that larger woodpecker species simply cannot get to. They can also frequently be found poking around for insects that reside inside or on the stems of weeds.

During the winter, the males of the species forcefully take the choicest foraging spots, leaving large branches and tree trunks to the females. This peculiar behavior happens only in the wintertime when food is scarce, and studies have been inspired by it. Scientists discovered that the dividing of foraging spots is the result of the male, and that when the sexes are separated the female will happily look for food among the smaller branches and other areas that are ripe with insects.

In addition to this, these clever little birds will often join mix ‘n’ match flocks of birds to increase the productivity of foraging. Because they join up with other birds, the downeys are able to spend less time watching out for predators and more time looking for food. The other birds in the flock help with this last part as well.


Despite popular belief, woodpeckers do not beat their bills against trees and posts in order to find food. In fact, they are quite adept at poking around and looking for food in tree bark while hardly making any noise at all. The real reason for the reverberating drumming is to attract potential mates. This is a necessary function because downey woodpeckers do not have a song.

Unlike most birds, the downey woodpecker does not migrate during the winter. They are incredibly adept at being able to forage throughout the winter months for food that is located inside of rotted out trees and branches, as well as sprigs of weeds that may house larvae and insects.

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