SIB “Bird of the Week” – Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
Length:  5.5 – 6.7″; Wingspan: 9.8-11.8″; Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz.

Downy Woodpecker - Ed Konrad
The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots on the Downy Woodpecker – Ed Konrad

The active little Downy Woodpecker is a familiar sight at backyard feeders and in parks and woodlots, where it joins flocks of chickadees and nuthatches, barely out-sizing them, and can be attracted to a bird bath or sprinkler.  An often acrobatic forager, this black-and-white woodpecker is at home on tiny branches or balancing on slender plant galls, sycamore seed balls, and suet feeders.

Downy Woodpeckers are black above, white below; wings spotted white with a black-and-white face. The males sport a red patch on back of their head. Their short, chisel-like bill is shorter than depth of head. It is less patterned and smaller than a yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Most people have a difficult time distinguishing between a Downy & Hairy Woodpecker, so don’t be discouraged if you have felt this way.  It is nearly impossible to tell the difference except for three features:

  • Overall size of the Hairy is 9″ vs Downy of 6″ – but this is difficult to discern when they are not next to each other
  • Length of bill for the Hairy is nearly as long as the head
  • Both have a white trailing edge on the tail feathers, but only the Downy has black spots.  This is often difficult to see as they move so quickly

This article may help, and the fact that at least on Seabrook Island, the Downy is much more outgoing and common to view.

Downy Woodpeckers eat insects (>75%) and fruit, seeds, and sap from sapsucker wells. Sexes forage separately, the male on small branches and the upper canopy. While foraging, they do more tapping and excavating in winter and surface gleaning in the summer. They will come to feeders for suet (and occasionally sunflower seeds).

As we mentioned, the Downy Woodpecker is a common woodpecker on Seabrook Island. Listen for their sharp contact notes as they feed. Watch as this adult male with a red patch on the nape comes in to feed the juvenile on this video.  You’ll also notice the Juvenile Downy Woodpeckers have red crowns. 

You may also want to view and listen to this brief article and podcast brought to you by BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

If you would like to learn more about this bird visit:

Article submitted by:  Judy Morr
Photographs provided by:

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

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