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The Downy Woodpecker

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Photo National Park Service Photo National Park Service

Our weest nail-driver

This might be stating the obvious, but different bird species exist because each can exploit an ecological niche that others can not, or at least not as effectively. That is why our area can support two different species of nuthatch and four different types of chickadees. You might see these birds flock together on occasion and even dine at the same feeder, but in the normal course of their lives they each eke out an existence in ways that other birds can not. This ability is what generates diversity in the animal kingdom. And one of the most diverse families of birds in our own green acres of birding paradise is the woodpeckers. 

If you are a regular reader of this column you’ll know that a few different species of woodpeckers have already been examined. But there are many more to go! Interestingly, our region is woodpecker rich: from the continent’s largest—the crow-sized Pileated woodpecker—to the smallest—this month’s subject—the Downy woodpecker. The Downy is about as small as woodpeckers get, not much bigger than a house finch. 

Even though it is the littlest woodpecker, the Downy is not always that easy to identify. It is almost identical in plumage to its next-size-larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. In both you’ll see that the underside of the bird is totally white, from the neck to the undertail coverts—belly, breast, and thighs, all white. The topside of both birds is dominated by black, although there will be a distinctive black and white checkerboard pattern on the wings. The back will be black, but it will be offset in the middle by a bold white slash of varying size, depending on the individual bird. In both species the head is white and sports three black accents: a narrow cap, a bandit’s eye mask, and a long handlebar moustache. The last two seem to flow toward the back of the head where they merge together. The male of both species is differentiated from the ladies by the addition of a little red topknot on the back of the head. This little marker really stands out. 

So why, then, are these two species so tough to tell apart when the Downy is the smaller of the two? Great question and I’m glad you asked it. Any experienced birder will tell you that “sizing” a bird in the field is one of the most difficult tasks to do when checking out the neighbors. Unless there is some point of reference, it is hard to get a measure on a bird’s size. Therefore, unless you know a species’ definitive field marks, you might not know if you are looking at the little Downy or the still-little-but-larger Hairy. What is a birder to do? Check out the beak. The beak will tell you.

Downy woodpeckers have itsy-bitsy beaks, almost a “you’ve got to be kidding” size for a woodpecker, even a little scrapper like this one. Hairy woodpeckers have a real chisel of a beak: big, black, and sharp—exactly what you’d expect of an animal that can bore into a tree trunk. If the beak is obviously shorter in length than the bird’s head, it is a Downy. If the beak is about the same length as the bird’s head, it is a Hairy. One more clue: Downys will have noticeable white nasal bristles where the beak meets the face; sort of like a small, out-of-control mustache. There might be a bit of a matching goatee, too. The Hairy is clean shaven.  

If you want to attract the Downy woodpecker to your backyard feeder try adding some suet to the meal selection. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are insectivores, but there are not a lot to be had during the winter months. Suet mimics the bugs and grubs that these little woodpeckers prefer. And if you don’t want to run to the store to buy some suet try peanut butter, but not that icky processed commercial kind you feed your kids (yuck!). Try something a little closer to what God had in mind when he invented peanuts: Adams or some other whole-peanut brand. And to really wow the crowds, add some seeds into the offering.

The Downy is fun to watch. Their little motors are always going and they never sit still. These are busy little birds. They can also be quite noisy; their sounds remind me of a dog’s squeaky toy.

Yup, it might be winter and all seems still, but that’s because you forgot to refill the bird feeder. Get out there and do your part to help our little feathered neighbors get through the winter. And don’t forget the suet. Some little hole-driller in the neighborhood will be mighty thankful. 

Happy birding!  

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, pileated woodpecker, A Bird in Hand, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy woodpecker

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