Bird of the Week #20: Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

Every single bird I’ve posted about has had something unique about it. The grackles and Blue Jays are intelligent, the Barn Swallow is a distant traveler, the Brown-headed Cowbird is kind of a tool, and so on. The more I learn about these fascinating dinosaurs (yes, they are dinosaurs), the more interesting they get. This week, I’m diving into a new category of birds: the woodpecker. Specifically, we’ll be looking at North America’s smallest woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker.

Downy Woodpeckers are nearly identical-looking to the somewhat larger Hairy Woodpecker and even shares largely the same habitat area. Besides their size, which at a distance is difficult to judge, they can be distinguished by the Downy Woodpeckers having shorter bills and spots along the white outer tail feathers. In addition, male Downy Woodpeckers have a single red spot on their heads, while the Hairy Woodpeckers have the same red spot that’s divided in two by a strip of black.

Male Downy Woodpecker Displaying Wings

Both are black and white, with only the males bearing a signature red spot on top of their heads. Their heads are black and white striped, their wings are black with white spots, and their breasts are entirely white.

It’s theorized that these birds look so similar because Downy Woodpeckers seek to imitate their larger cousins. Feeder Watch has an interesting article about this, speculating that the Downy Woodpecker would like other birds to think they are the larger Hairy Woodpecker and thus gain a bit more respect relative to their size. After all, why would any bird fear the tiny Downy Woodpecker? But the Hairy Woodpecker is about the size of a robin and thus larger than many birds found at common food sources. Thus, the downy gets to have its cake and eat it, getting the advantages of being both a larger and smaller bird.

Like all in the woodpecker family, the Downy Woodpecker is specially suited for smacking its bill repeatedly into trees. The entire design of their heads is purpose-built! Their brains are set in their bodies in such a way that the brains won’t move around after repeated impacts, plus they have special tissue built in like shock absorbers to protect themselves.

Speaking of, woodpeckers will peck for two reasons. One, they will be making holes for nests or for foraging. Most people will assume when they hear a woodpecker drumming that they’re making nests, but this isn’t the case. The second reason is that drumming is how woodpeckers “sing.” Most birds use their elaborate songs to establish territory or find mates, but the woodpeckers instead will drum. It’s not unusual for some woodpeckers to find metal chimneys or other human structures which make more noise than trees.

As I said before, woodpeckers carve holes in trees to make their nests. Woodpeckers will rarely return to the same hole year after year. Instead, other birds such as chickadees and bluebirds will take advantage of old woodpecker nests.

Downy Woodpecker grabbing a bite
Note how the Downy Woodpecker sits to eat the feeder, unlike the other birds who perch normally.

Another adaptation that people don’t about much is the woodpecker’s tongue. Woodpeckers have ridiculously long tongues! They actually wrap all the way around their skulls. These massive tongues make it possible for them to get hard to reach food that would otherwise be impossible for other birds to get.

That said, you can attract woodpeckers to your yard fairly easily. Woodpeckers are known to be suet addicts, with the downside being that other birds or squirrels may hog your suet. There are ways around this, though, including this woodpecker feeder which is essentially two narrow pieces of wood with a narrow gap between them. The idea is you put a thin piece of suet in between the wood out of reach of squirrels or other birds, but woodpeckers will have no issue getting at it because of their tongues! The disadvantage is that regular suet blocks won’t fit. You can also use bark butter!

Another alternative is an upside-down suet feeder, which is essentially a standard suet feeder, but the actual suet can only be accessed from the bottom. This will deter starlings and sparrows who aren’t quite acrobatic enough to get suet comfortably, though they will be able to get at it in small spurts. Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are quite gymnastic and will have no problem.

I have a woodpecker couple that visits me on occasion. They aren’t regulars to my feeders, dropping by only every few days. They are, however, welcome and entertaining visitors. With the goldfinches being away in the summer the Downy Woodpeckers are actually the most frequent visitors to my finch feeders. They aren’t quite designed to for woodpeckers, so you can see them having trouble in the pictures below. Look especially at their tails! Woodpecker tails are a great deal more rigid than most bird tails because woodpeckers actually use their tails like a “third leg” when they anchor themselves on trees.

To me, the most interesting thing about woodpeckers in general is how specially suited they are to just being woodpeckers. Some birds like grackles or crows are well suited for adaptation, but woodpeckers are just darn good at doing what they do!

What do you think of the Downy Woodpecker? Aren’t they cute?

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