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Interesting Facts About Downy Woodpeckers

Raksha Kulkarni
Downy woodpeckers are North America's smallest woodpeckers, growing only up to 6 - 7 inches. This story gives you many more such interesting facts about them.

Did You Know?

In the 1950 - 60s, downy woodpeckers in Northeastern America fed on elm bark beetle, which was responsible for spreading the Dutch elm disease.
Downy woodpeckers are found in backyards, parks, woodlands, etc. Their beautiful black and white back, with downy white feathers and a short, sharp bill justifies their name. These birds are often mistaken as hairy woodpeckers, but both are different. Hairy woodpeckers have a long bill, much longer than that of a downy's. Also, in comparison, downy woodpeckers are smaller in size.

Scientific Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Piciformes
  • Family: Picidae
  • Genus: Picoides
  • Species: Picoides pubescens


Both the males and females are white-bellied, and their wings are black with white spots. While the bird is sitting, a white strip of feathers can be seen.
The male bird has a red patch on its head, and females have white lines on either sides of their head.
This bird weighs almost 20 - 33 g, and the wingspan reaches up to 21 - 33 cm (9 - 13 inches). They have a long, barbed and sticky tongue, which makes it easy for them to feed on insects from deep inside the wood and the barks.


The term 'plumage' means the feathery covering of a bird. Every bird has different colors and patterns that change according to the climatic conditions. The young birds of this species start shedding their juvenile plumage in summer and enter the full adult plumage stage by fall end.
The adult birds begin with their fresh winter plumage after their breeding period, which takes almost two months, which ends in September.


They are found throughout the United States, except some parts like Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and California, all round the year. Their frequency changes according to the seasons.
These birds like deciduous forests, but they can be seen in varied areas and even near suburban regions. They can be found near rivers, coniferous forests, and orchards too. They are less in numbers in the southwest.

The Downy Woodpecker Call

The downys have a sharp whiny call that sounds like 'pik'. Unlike other birds, the woodpeckers do not have vocal songs. Instead, they drum on trees, logs, or other surfaces, to attract a male and mark their territories.
Their drumming is softer than that of other similar species. They drum almost 17 - 20 times per second. They have stiff feathers that protect their nostrils from the wood dust, while drumming.


These birds mainly feed on insects, specially wood larvae. The male and female feed in different areas. The male feeds where there is plenty of food and does not allow the female in his territory. These birds can be seen near bird feeders too, feeding on peanut butter and suet.
In the winters, they join other birds and help each other to find food and to keep an eye on the predators. These birds help our ecosystem by eating all the destructive insects.


These birds drill their own cavities for their nests, mostly in dying or dead wood. The cavities are 8 - 50 feet above the ground. Drilling is done by both male and female, and it takes almost two weeks to complete the task. The entrance is only about one and a quarter inches, from which only the birds can enter (except snakes, which can be threats).
These birds can also live in man-made bird holes. Soft woodchips are dropped into the hole by the female bird. Their mating season starts in early spring. The female lays 4 - 5 white eggs, which are incubated by both, mostly by the male. Each egg takes 12 days to hatch.

Life Cycle/Lifespan

The young babies are fed by parents in the nest itself. The newborn takes almost 3 weeks to fully grow and leave the nest. The woodpecker is ready to have babies in less than a year. The average lifespan of these birds is between 1 - 2 years. A 5-year-old bird is said to be very old. The longest lifespan of this bird recorded is 11 years and 11 months.

Other Interesting Facts

✦ Downy woodpeckers were first officially named by a Swedish biologist named Carolus Linnaeus in 1766.
✦ These birds are 12 percent larger in Alaska, than they are in Florida because small birds happen to lose heat faster than the larger birds due to the ratio of surface area to weight.
✦ They have been an epitome of hard work and courage. So, as a mark of respect, many Native American tribes have been inspired by the red patch, a significant feature depicted by the male downy.
✦ These birds have this unique feature of flattening themselves on the tree trunk to trick their predators.

✦ They have a great sense of smell and sound, which makes it easy for them to find their prey.