Downy Woodpecker

D. pubescens

Last updated: August 1, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com

Downy Woodpecker Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Piciformes
Family
Picidae
Genus
Dryobates
Scientific Name
D. pubescens

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Downy Woodpecker Conservation Status

Downy Woodpecker Locations

Downy Woodpecker Locations

Downy Woodpecker Facts

Prey
Insects
Group Behavior
  • Social
  • Flocks
Estimated Population Size
14 million
Wingspan
10-12 inches
Age Of Fledgling
18-21 days
Habitat
Forests
Predators
Birds of prey
Diet
Omnivore

Downy Woodpecker Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
One to Three Years
Weight
0.74-0.99 ounces
Length
5.7-6.7 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
One Year
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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View all of the Downy Woodpecker images!



“Downy woodpeckers look slightly different depending on where they are located.”

The little woodpeckers are a common sight at bird feeders and in gardens. Often, they join flocks of other birds to perform acrobatic feats of foraging. You’ll often find them balancing on tiny branches and along wires.

4 Amazing Downy Woodpecker Facts

  • Birds of a feather: The downy woodpecker will flock with just about any bird, especially in the winter. This helps them find food easier and prevents them from being eaten.
  • Gender matters: Male downy woodpeckers prefer to feed on smaller branches and weed stems. However, females feed on larger branches and trunks. It seems that males may prevent females from accessing the more productive locations.
  • Sometimes, small is better: These small woodpeckers eat food larger woodpeckers just can’t reach.
  • Silent drummers: While these birds don’t sing much, they drum loudly on wood and metal pieces. This is not part of their feeding pattern. Instead, it is how they communicate. When eating, these birds are very quiet.

Where to Find Downy Woodpeckers

These birds have a fairly long range. They are native to deciduous, forested areas in North America. Beyond the need for trees, you can find them just about anywhere on this continent, including in the United States and Canada. The only areas you won’t spot them are in the deserts of the southwest and northern tundras.

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Typically, you can find these birds in wooded areas, parks, and gardens. You can typically follow their drumming noises to spot them. As they often flock with chickadees, they can be easy to miss.

Downy Woodpecker Nests

These woodpeckers choose dead trees or the dead parts of a live tree to nest in. often, they choose a smaller part of the tree that leads away from the trunk. Then, they place the entrance hole on the bottom. Usually, the hole is small, as these are relatively smaller birds. The entrance is usually only an inch across.

Often, they choose trees that are infected with fungus. The fungus softens the wood, which makes excavating a hole easier.

Both the male and female take part in making the nest. As this is a big job, it usually takes them one to three weeks to complete. Once done, the cavities range from six to twelve inches deep. Often, they are wider towards the bottom to make room for the eggs. Beyond that, a traditional “nest” is not created. The hole is only lined with wood chips from the excavation.

Downy Woodpecker Scientific Name

The downy woodpecker’s scientific name has varied substantially over the years. This species has been moved around a lot as scientific understanding of species relations has improved. Currently, its scientific name is Dryobates pubescens.

Pubescens is simply Latin for “downy,” which has been the bird’s common name for a long time. Dryobates translates to “woodland walker.” It is a larger genus of birds that is widely distributed throughout the world. Currently, it contains five different species.

The downy woodpecker belongs to the larger Picidae family, which contains all woodpeckers. As you’d likely guess, this family is large and spans worldwide.

Downy Woodpecker Size, Appearance, & Behavior

The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. However, there are some small species on other continents. These birds measure 5.5 to 7.1 inches, with a wingspan of 9.8 to 12.2 inches. They typically weigh just under an ounce, though some may weigh as much as 1.16 ounces.

For the most part, this bird is mostly black. However, it does feature white on its underside, head, and wings. Males have a red patch on the back of their heads, while juveniles have a red cap. Their bill is quite short, especially when compared to other woodpeckers.

Usually, this species is described as extremely active. They move quickly between grass stems and wildflowers to collect insects and other food items. To improve their balance, they lean on their tail feathers for support. Therefore, they can walk on very thin limbs.

Occasionally, you’ll see this bird hop on the ground for food. However, they do move very quickly.

downy woodpecker
The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America.

Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com

Downy Woodpecker Diet

Generally, this woodpecker has a similar diet to other woodpeckers.

What does the downy woodpecker eat?

The downy woodpecker gets most of its calories from insects, such as beetle larvae. Often, this species will hammer into a tree to catch bugs and pick them off the grass. These birds consume a lot of different “pest insects,” so they are often well-loved by gardeners.

However, about 25% of their diet is made up of plant material. They enjoy berries, grains, and acorns particularly. Furthermore, they also like to eat sunflower seeds from bird feeders, and they may even occasionally drink from hummingbird feeders.

Downy Woodpecker Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

Currently, the downy woodpecker population is pretty stable. Therefore, their conservation status is “least concern”“. There does not seem to be any current threat to their population.

What eats downy woodpeckers?

These birds are preyed upon by birds of prey. In their range, they are usually threatened by the American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, and the Cooper’s hawk. Often, these birds are captured while in flight. While they aren’t poor flyers, they generally aren’t the best, either.

Typically, only snakes prey on their eggs. The way they build their nest protects their eggs from just about anything that isn’t a snake. Other animals simply cannot enter their nests.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

After excavating a nest, these birds typically lay anywhere from 3 to 8 eggs. This range is rather large, but we don’t know for certain what causes one bird to lay more eggs than other. Each year, a mated couple will only raise a single brood. The eggs are completely white and without any easily identifiable markings.

The incubation period is exactly 12 days. At that point, the eggs will hatch. However, the babies remain in the nest as hatchlings for 18-21 days.

Population

The total breeding population of the downy woodpecker is around 14 million birds. According to the IUCN Red List, they are classified as least concern. Their population is thought to be stable and prolific.

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Downy Woodpecker FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Does the downy woodpecker migrate?

No. The downy woodpecker does not migrate. They remain year-round throughout their whole range.

How many eggs does the downy woodpecker lay?

The downy woodpecker lays between three to eight eggs in a clutch, and they only raise one brood per year. We do not know why different birds lay such different amounts of eggs.

How fast does the downy woodpecker fly?

We don’t have an exact flight speed for these smaller birds. However, their flight path is undulating, so it isn’t necessarily as straight and fast as other birds. They aren’t poor fliers, but they aren’t necessarily the best.

What is the downy woodpecker's wingspan?

The downy woodpecker has a wingspan of between 10 to 12 inches long. These are relatively small birds, especially when compared to other woodpeckers.

When do downy woodpeckers leave the nest?

Downy woodpeckers have a nestling period of 18-21 days. During this period, they remain in the nest. After this, the birds leave the nest and become fledglings. Before they hatch, they are incubated by both parents for about 12 days.

Sources
  1. All About Birds, Available here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/lifehistory
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downy_woodpecker
  3. National Parks Services, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/nature/downy-woodpecker.htm

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