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An up close look at the lives of Downy woodpeckers

Living the Wild Life

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Bill Schiess,

The male Downy woodpecker just would not leave the female alone as she foraged for rare insects and hidden gems of food on the small branches of my hybrid poplars in my backyard. Of course, I thought he had gotten the seasons mixed up and was starting his dating ritual a little too early – the minus three degrees at the end of December was not flirting time for woodpeckers.

As I watched longer and closer, I noticed a pattern – when she landed on a small branch he would immediately attack, but when she landed on a large branch or trunk, he allowed her to feed. Research told me that during the winter, males prefer to work small branches and feed there and they are not ready for females to invade their territory.

Occasionally I notice the female will appear on the deciduous trees early in the morning checking all the small branches before the male appears. As he shows up, she will move to the suet cakes to feed on them as he checks out the branches she has just harvested. “The early bird gets the worm – I mean, the insect” before the late getter-upper appears.

Bill Schiess,

Downy woodpeckers are some of the easiest of the woodpeckers to draw to feeding stations as they love suet, white millet and sunflower seeds. They also join mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, flickers, sparrows and finches at feeding stations not only for the food but also for protection from bird-eating-birds. Coopers and Sharp-shinned hawks, Kestrels and Merlins as well as shrikes often troll feeding stations to capture songbirds.

I have a couple of Sharp-shinned hawks visit my backyard almost daily but have never seen them capture a Downy. The starlings, House finches and House sparrows are usually the captured birds as they are the most numerous at the feeders. Chickadees are usually the alarms of attacking birds and they will often get in the thick branches of a bush and will harass the community murderer.

It is very easy to tell the difference between a male and a female Downy as the male has a small red cap on the back of its head while the female is like an old-time newspaper; only black and white. But it is easy to mistake a Downy with their cousin, the Hairy. Hairy woodpeckers are basically the same color but are slightly larger, with a larger and longer bill. The only coloring difference is the Downy has outside tail feathers that are spotted while the Hairy has two outside pure white tail feathers on each side of its tail.

Bill Schiess,

Downys do not “sing,” they communicate by “drumming.” Drumming occurs when a bird pecks at a dead tree or stump – or even on steel house siding or a chimney. Each woodpecker specie has a different tempo, rhythm and length of their drumming and the dainty Downy has a quiet diminutive sound. Some expert birders can identify the specie of woodpeckers by their drumming sounds. Drumming doesn’t indicate a noisy eater; it indicates that it wants to visit with another bird.

I have a neighbor who has several spindly dead poplars in his back yard that is popular for Downys, Hairys and flickers to drum on. Everyone in the neighborhood knows when the flickers are drumming while few know when the Downy is sounding off. Drumming increases in the spring when the boys are advertising for a girlfriend.

When trying to attract woodpeckers in the winter, I will put out three different flavors of suet cakes and some chunky peanut butter. I like the Downys well enough to put up with flickers and even have one female Downy that will eat peanut butter from my hand.

With the recent bitter cold, many birds are looking for a free meal and remind me of the Corvid food lines in some cities. But if you are not willing to feed the birds for the rest of the winter season, don’t start a feeding program as many of them will die if you quit before natural food becomes available.

I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas; I did as I got more bird feeders and bird food so I can continue to watch and enjoy my feathered friends. Happy New Year to everyone – be healthy, safe and enjoy 2021 in the Great Outdoors!!

Bill Schiess,