The stillness of the morning is broken by the high pitched, yet soft whinny of what sounds like a miniature pony. Our smallest woodpecker has an unmistakable vocalization. In my early days of bird watching, I had a difficulty telling the calls of one woodpecker from another. Most woodpeckers have a rapid series of calls which sound like laughter and so it is with the little Downy Woodpecker. I remember watching a Downy Woodpecker with some other birders and one of them turned to me and said, “Doesn’t it sound like a miniature pony whinnying?” Ever since then I have had no problem recognizing the Downy’s whinny call. Downy Woodpeckers also have a soft single “peek” call note. Woodpeckers do not have songs like many other birds. Rather they are the percussion section of the garden sound track.
The Downy Woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker. It is a common visitor to bird feeders and like all woodpeckers loves eating suet and peanut butter. In the winter, they are often found foraging with other small garden birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatches and Yellow-rumped Warblers.
The Downy Woodpecker has a reputation as a diligent forager. They often start at the top of a tree on the smaller branches and work their way around the limb slowly moving down the tree. Sometime they start on the trunk and move out slowly to very small branches. They check every loose piece of bark and every crevasse for insects. Their diet is 75% tree eating insect such as borers, carpenter ants, caterpillars and beetles. They thrive in young forests and orchards where other large woodpeckers do not venture. They have a very long barbed tongue to reach deep in borer holes to pluck out insects. They are considered the friend of the orchardist and tree farmer because they consume so many tree damaging insects. With their small pointed bill, they do very little damage to trees.
Downy Woodpeckers can be found in any type of forest from Miami to Fairbanks in 49 states. They forage in trees, shrubs, and tall weeds. Nest cavities are usually made in limbs with dead or diseased wood. Nest holes are 1 ½ inches wide and round. Where trees are few and far between, they will nest in old fence posts and bluebird boxes.
Early last spring, I noticed the opening of the bluebird box had been enlarged. I set up a wildlife camera on a tripod a few feet away and soon discovered a female Downy was the guilty party. She did not stay long and moved to another nest site. I do not know if my presence made her leave the box or maybe she found some fault with the old Bluebird box.
Keep an eye on trees in your garden this winter; with no leaves it should be easy to spot some of our common woodpeckers.
They enjoy suet/peanut butter cakes along with sunflower seeds and other seeds in the winter.
Article submitted by Kathy Woolsey
Photographs by Kathy Woolsey & Ed Konrad