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All About Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens)

Contents: Species, Interesting Facts, Identification, Song, Distribution, Roosting, Preferred Nesting Habitat, Diet, Nesting Behavior, Nestboxes, Nestbox Location, Recommended Distance Between Nestboxes, Monitoring, Nesting Timetable, Longevity, More Info

Downy
A Downy female investigates a nestbox for roosting. Photo by Bet Zimmerman

Species: The scientific name for the Downy Woodpecker changed from Picus Pubescens (Linnaeus) to Dryobates pubescens to Dendrocopos pubescens and finally to Picoides pubescens in 1983. Nine species of woodpeckers in the Picoides genus are found in North America, including the Hairy Woodpecker. The alpha code is DOWO. There are eight subspecies of Downies (P.p. glacialis, nelsoni, medianus, pubescens, leucurus, gairdnerii and turati)

NOTE: I have never heard of a Downy Woodpecker NESTING in a nestbox. However, they often ROOST in nestboxes and artificial snags. In a nestbox, they often "excavate" the interior, leaving woodchips behind (and sometimes gray downy feathers from preening.) They may also try to enlarge the entrance hole. Former Downy roosting and nesting cavities may be used by secondary cavity nesters, or enlarged by larger woodpecker species.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Downy is the smallest North American woodpecker, and the most common (based on BBS and CBC data.)
  • Their tongue is coated with sticky mucus to help nab small insects.
  • When drumming, Downies hit the substrate about 16-17 times per second. Drumming can last 0.25-1.8 seconds. (Ritchison). They primarily drum from Feb-July.
  • Downies are rarely seen bathing in water, although they have been seen "snowbathing." (Merriam 1920)
  • Downies may excavate for a few minutes up to an hour, usually working 15-20 minutes at a time.
  • Both parents incubate and brood (only males incubate and brood at night.)
  • In nonbreeding season, downies will hang in mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets and Hairy Woodpeckers, and respond to alarm calls by chickadee or titmice sentinels.
  • On cold winter nights, Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers conserve energy by lowering their body temperature by 10 to 15 degrees F.  While this may seem counterproductive, “nocturnal hypothermia” probably reduces energy expenditure by as much as ten percent.
  • Males forage more on smaller branches, females on larger branches and tree trunks.
  • They occasionally drink sap and eat cambium, but the holes they make are smaller, less rectangular, and less deep than sapsuckers, so they do not injure the tree.
  • They have been seen following White-breasted nuthatches and stealing from their food caches (Sutton 1986).

Identification: 5.5-6.5 inches long, primarily black above with a broad white stripe down the center of the back, and numerous white spots/checks on the wings. The two central tail feathers are completely black, with outermost tail feathers largely white with some black barring. Throat and underparts are buffy to grayish white. White stripes above and below eyes. Males have red patch on the back of the head or nape. Females and males are similar in size, but females have slightly longer tails. The bill is black. Fledglings look similar to adults although black areas are more dull or browner, and underparts are more grayish or buffy, and the sides of the breast and flanks are finely streaked. young males may have reddish or pinkish feather tips on the crown. Juveniles have a pale or olive-brown iris (adults have a brown or brown-red iris.) Hairy Woodpeckers are larger, and their bill is at least twice as long as the Downy's, and more chisel-like. Downies are less wary of humans than Hairies, and have a different drumming pattern. Nuttall's Woodpecker is slightly smaller and has a barred back, although they may hybridize.

Song: peck, kweek, queek, sputters, chirps, chips, rattles, whinnies, etc. Differs from Hairy in quality and power (Hairy call is louder and more explosive.) Comparatively silent during cold winter months.

Distribution: A very common woodpecker in most parts of the U.S. and Canada, most common in eastern U.S. Not found in drier habitats in SW, West, or in northern Alaska or Hawaii. See BBS Map. They do not migrate, although they may disperse seasonally.

Roosting: Downies roost singly in cavities year round. They usually excavate roosting cavities during the fall, but may do so at any time of year. Excavation takes about a week (as short as 3-4 days), depending on how hard the wood is. They often hollow out the interior of nestboxes, and may also enlarge the entrance hole of a bluebird box (but can fit in a 1.5" round hole.) I see them going into nestboxes just before dusk. They have also been known to roost in fence posts, and artificial snags made of bars of polystyrene mounted vertically on posts.

Roosts are usually 7-20 feet (as much as 5-60 feet) above the ground (Ritchison), in snags or dead limbs of live trees, and sometimes in live trees that are 6-12 inches in diameter (sometimes smaller.) They prefer trees that are not too close to other big trees. The tunnel entrance is usually a couple inches long, and the cavity is 4-10" deep (average 7" - usually not as deep as a nesting cavity ), usually a bit narrower at the bottom than at the top. The hole is often oriented away from prevailing winds, and the tree or branch is leaning, the hole is on the side leaning towards the ground. Entrance holes average 1 7/8" in diameter, but may range from 1 1/4 to 2 3/8." If the cavity is enlarged by a Hairy or Red-bellied Woodpecker, the Downy usually won't use it. Sometimes titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and flying squirrels will take over their cavity.

Preferred Nesting Habitat: Fairly open, deciduous (aspen, cottonwood, willow, elm, oak, ash, etc.), especially riparian forest, less abundant in coniferous forests except when associated with deciduous understory. Orchards and wooded urban and suburban parks and residential areas. May nest in open areas in vacant lots with tall weeds fence rows. Will use less mature and moderately open forest.

Diet: 76% animal matter (at least 44 different kinds of insects, including beetles [adults and larvae], weevils, ants, scale, aphids, butterfly and moth larvae, also eggs of grasshoppers, crickets, katydids and cockroaches, spiders, millipedes, sow bugs, and a few snails, and 24% vegetable matter (at least 22 different kinds, including acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, corn, sunflower seeds (especially black oil), and wild fruits like blackberry, elderberry, blueberry, poison ivy, poison oak, flowering dogwood, rough-leaved dogwood. (Foster Beal, 1911) Will also eat animal fat from carcasses and suet (including plain raw or rendered suet). They rarely store or cache food. May drink sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Nesting Behavior: See below.

Nest Cavities: Downies are primary cavity nesters (making their own cavities.) A circular entrance tunnel curves down and leads to a gourd-shaped cavity. Typical nest chambers are 8-12" deep, and 3" in diameter at the top, narrowing to 2-2.5" in diameter at the bottom. While nests are not reused, they may nest in a new cavity in the same tree in subsequent years.

Nest Location: Sites are usually 15-20 feet above the ground (8-50 feet possible), in trees usually 10-15" in diameter at breast height (5-7" diameter at cavity entrance), and 20-35 feet tall. Thinning of forests is beneficial.

Recommended distance between nestboxes: Territories are only defended during nesting season. The size depends on the habitat, but may be 4.5-25 acres. A pair of downies probably needs a woodlot of 2-3 acres.

Monitoring: May watch, stalk, physically attack, or take up a strategic position within the nest cavity when the nest is threatened by a potential predator. Removing nestlings from cavities with a noose for study purposes can cause injury if they are too young (< 7 days old) or too old (> 10 days.) Because of their barbed tongue, adults may get caught in mist-nets, and may have problems with loose bands (backward facing toes can get caught.)

Nesting Timetable (typical): Breeding season lasts from February - July.

  • Excavation or nest site selection: Males establish territories during Feb-April. Excavation usually starts in mid- to late April or May (sooner in the south, later in Canada and Alaska.) They work together (alternating) in the morning to excavate a new cavity for each nesting attempt. They may check out several spots (with mate drumming to draw partner over), and may begin excavating at multiple sites. Female often selects final site. Excavation is typically 16 days (ranging from 7-20 days.) Debris is tossed onto the ground.
  • Nest construction: No nesting material is brought into the chamber, but sawdust and wood chips provide a cushion.
  • Egg laying: Usually begins a few days after cavity is completed, anywhere between 1-10 days. Typically lay one egg per day for 5 eggs (3-8 possible.) Eggs are oval, smooth, shiny and white. They are about 4/5 inch x 3/5 inch.
  • Incubation: 12 days. Both males and females develop brood patches and incubate the eggs (only the males incubate at night), keeping them at 98-100 degrees F. Temperatures above 106, and below 78 may stop development. After egg laying ends, adults may chip more wood from walls.
  • Hatching: Eggs usually hatch within 12-24 hours of each other, but can take up to 48 hours. Adults may remove egg shells.
  • Development: Hatchlings are naked and blind (altricial), with pinkish red skin and no sign of feathers (or just faint dots on the wings.) Claws and bill are pinkish white with large white/flesh-colored oral flanges, tongue tipped with shiny white and lacks barbs, heels callused. Adults brood young constantly for 4-7 days after hatching. During the first 2 weeks, brooding varies with temperature. Males brood at night. Both parents feed the young. For the first 2-3 days, the young are fed soft-bodied insects. Parents (mostly the male) remove fecal sacs, which are produced every 3-4 feedings, until the end of the nesting cycle when they leave them and it gets pretty skanky. Young that hatch later may never catch up size-wise, and if food is limited or weather is bad, the youngest may die.
    • Day 2: young can hold their heads up for several seconds at a time.
    • Days 4-7: up to this time, nestlings just huddle and gape. Eyes and ears begin to open by Day 4.
    • Days 4-10: feather sheaths emerge from feather tracts, including wing and tail.
    • Day 8-12: feathers break through ends of sheath. Eyes are completely open by Day 8. By Day 7-8, young can be sexed by red feathers on nape.
    • Day 10: young can reach up higher into the cavity, so the parent may have its tail sticking out of the entrance hole.
    • Day 11-12: white knob like protuberances on either side of the bill disappear.
    • Day 12-14: young downies can grasp with their feet, and quietly hunker down when light at entrance suddenly changes (e.g., when hand is placed over entrance hole.)
    • Day 12-15: nestlings respond more to the look or sound of parents versus changes in light.
    • Day 14: capable of limited flight.
    • Day 15: young may be able to climb up the winner walls (with the parent just sticking it's head and neck into the entrance hole to feed).
    • Day 15-16: almost fully feathered.
    • Day 16: capable of short horizontal flight (10-20 feet). Active, will peck strongly in defense.
    • Day 16-18: feathers largely cover apteria.
    • 5 days before fledging the parents just stick their heads into of the hole to feed.
  • Fledging: Usually in June or July, 20-25 days after hatching. Fledging may occur at any time, but usually late in morning. All may depart within an hour, but can take 24 hours. They are independent 2.5-3 weeks after fledging.
  • Dispersal: Up to 9 days (usually much less) downies may stay near the nest cavity (but do not reenter.) They may stay near their parents for several days or weeks after becoming independent.
  • Number of broods: One if the first brood fledges (may renest if eggs are lost, or nest is lost when nestlings are a few days old.) Nesting success is usually 70-85% (Ritchison)
  • Longevity: Banded wild Downy lived at least 11 years, 5 mos. in NY (Clapp et al 1983)

References and More Information:

  • Ritchison, Gary, Downy Woodpecker, Wild Bird Guide, 1999
  • 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; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/613 doi:10.2173/bna.613
  • Bent, A.C., Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Winsor Marrett Tyler, Smithsonian Institution U.S. National Museum Bulletin 174:52-68, 1939
  • Differences among cavity nesters
  • Drumming
  • Hole guards (to prevent enlargement)
  • Nest and Egg ID (with links to species biology and photos of nests, eggs and young) for other small cavity nesters

When civilized man invaded their territory, the downy woodpecker did not retreat before his advance but accepted as home the orchards and shade trees with which man replaced the forest.
- Winsor Marret Tyler, 1939

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