Wild Profile: Meet the downy woodpecker

Published: February 2, 2021

A male downy woodpecker perched on a thin branch By Bruce MacQueen/Shutterstock

The sparrow-sized downy woodpecker is a bird-feeder favourite. Have you seen any this winter? They’re half the size of their lookalike cousins, hairy woodpeckers, and have stubby bills. They aren’t particularly downy—but they are bold. Along with being North America’s tiniest woodpecker, downies are considered the friendliest of the bunch.

Downy woodpeckers are gleaning birds. They scale trees and shrubs, constantly tapping and digging beneath bark crevices for beetles and ants, plus insect cocoons and egg masses. They have sticky, barbed tongues, the better to extract the hidden, buggy treats. The males tend to methodically search a tree’s upper branches. Females—they’ll be missing the red patch at the back of the head—stick to the trunk and the lower, larger limbs.

Downies are also smart enough to know that goldenrod galls—those round balls that sometimes sprout on the stems—contain fly larvae in winter. The woodpeckers will balance precariously on the skinny stem and drill into the gall for a protein-packed snack. You can tell if a downy has raided a gall because they’ll leave behind a precise, circular hole. Other birds destroy goldenrod galls too, but they tend to leave them looking smashed or ripped apart.

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Downy woodpeckers aren’t as noisy as other woodpeckers; they don’t drum as frequently. They do, however, start early. You might even hear them by mid-winter. Both males and females drum as they court each other ahead of the March-April breeding season. Sometimes they’ll even drum back and forth. Aww, they’re doing a duet!

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