Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens

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 outsizing them. 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. Downies and their larger lookalike, the Hairy Woodpecker, are one of the first identification challenges that beginning bird watchers master.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • In winter Downy Woodpeckers are frequent members of mixed species flocks. Advantages of flocking include having to spend less time watching out for predators and better luck finding food from having other birds around.
  • Male and female Downy Woodpeckers divide up where they look for food in winter. Males feed more on small branches and weed stems, and females feed on larger branches and trunks. Males keep females from foraging in the more productive spots. When researchers have removed males from a woodlot, females have responded by feeding along smaller branches.
  • The Downy Woodpecker eats foods that larger woodpeckers cannot reach, such as insects living on or in the stems of weeds. You may see them hammering at goldenrod galls to extract the fly larvae inside.
  • Woodpeckers don’t sing songs, but they drum loudly against pieces of wood or metal to achieve the same effect. People sometimes think this drumming is part of the birds’ feeding habits, but it isn’t. In fact, feeding birds make surprisingly little noise even when they’re digging vigorously into wood.
  • Downy Woodpeckers have been discovered nesting inside the walls of buildings.
  • The oldest known Downy Woodpecker lived to be at least 11 years 11 months old.


Size & Shape

Downy Woodpeckers are small versions of the classic woodpecker body plan. They have a straight, chisel-like bill, blocky head, wide shoulders, and straight-backed posture as they lean away from tree limbs and onto their tail feathers. The bill tends to look smaller for the bird’s size than in other woodpeckers.

Color Pattern

Downy Woodpeckers give a checkered black-and-white impression. The black upperparts are checked with white on the wings, the head is boldly striped, and the back has a broad white stripe down the center. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head. The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots.

Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
     Subfamily: Picinae
Genus: Picoides
Species: Picoides pubescens
  • Picoides pubescens fumidus
  • Picoides pubescens gairdnerii
  • Picoides pubescens glacialis
  • Picoides pubescens leucurus
  • Picoides pubescens medianus
  • Picoides pubescens pubescens
  • Picoides pubescens turati
The Downy Woodpecker’s whinnying call, made by both sexes, is a typical sound of deciduous forests during the breeding season. It’s a somewhat excited string of hoarse, high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward the end; the call lasts about 2 seconds. Excited birds also give a very sharp pik note, occasionally repeated several times.

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Length Range: 17-18 cm (6.75-7 in)
  • Weight: 28 g (1 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: White, Black
  • Underparts: White
  • Upperparts: Black with white spotting.
  • Back Pattern: Solid
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: Dagger
  • Eye Color: Brown with yellow outer edge in young birds, adults with deep red iris.
  • Head Pattern: Unique pattern
  • Crown Color: Black with red patch.
  • Forehead Color: Black and white
  • Nape Color: Black
  • Throat Color: White
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Rapidly beating wings., Undulating flight.
  • Wingspan Range: 28-30 cm (11-12 in)
  • Wing Shape: Rounded-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Squared Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Spotted
  • Upper Tail: Black with the three outer feathers white with black spots.
  • Under Tail: Black with the three outer feathers white with black spots.
  • Leg Color: Black
  • Breeding Location: Forests, coniferous, Forest edge
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous
  • Breeding Population: Widespread
  • Egg Color: White
  • Number of Eggs: 3 - 7
  • Incubation Days: 12
  • Egg Incubator: Both sexes
  • Nest Material: Cavity lined with chips.
  • Migration: Nonmigratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Naked, pink skin, a sharp egg tooth at the tip of bill; eyes closed, clumsy.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Pic mineur (French)
  • Hairy Woodpeckers are larger than Downy Woodpeckers and have a larger bill that is almost as long as the entire head.
  • Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer and more distinct black mark on the shoulder, and in most populations, completely white outer tail feathers.
  • A Downy Woodpecker's “whinny” call descends in pitch toward the end, unlike the Hairy Woodpecker's call. Nuttall's and Ladder-backed woodpeckers have horizontal bars on the back.
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a rare bird of southeastern pine forests. It has a barred back and white cheek.

Conservation Status

Downy Woodpeckers are numerous and their populations seem to be stable. These birds sometimes nest along fences, and the shift from wooden to metal fenceposts over the last century may have reduced their numbers. But clearing and thinning forests has had the opposite effect, since Downy Woodpeckers do well in young forests.




Sources used to Construct this Page:

Open woodlands, particularly deciduous woods and along streams. Also found in created habitats including orchards, parks, and suburbs. You may also find Downy Woodpeckers in open areas, where they can nest along fencerows and feed amid tall weeds.
  • Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Jackson, Jerome A. and Henri R. Ouellet. 2002. Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center longevity records.
Downy Woodpeckers eat mainly insects, including beetle larvae that live inside wood or tree bark as well as ants and caterpillars. They eat pest insects including corn earworm, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains. Downy Woodpeckers are common feeder birds, eating suet and black oil sunflower seeds and occasionally drinking from hummingbird feeders.
An active woodpecker that moves quickly over tree trunks, branches, and stems of grasses and wildflowers, characteristically leaning against its stiffened tail feathers for support. Downy Woodpeckers move horizontally and downwards on trees much more readily than most other woodpeckers. You may also see them perched atop tall weeds such as goldenrod in late summer, hammering away at a plant gall to get at the larva inside. Occasionally hops on the ground for food. Downy Woodpeckers have the undulating flight pattern typical of many woodpecker species, alternating quick wingbeats with folding the wings against the body. When having a dispute with another bird, Downy Woodpeckers fan their tails, raise their head feathers, and jerk their beaks from side to side. In spring you may see courtship displays in which males and females fly between trees with slow, fluttering wingbeats that look almost butterfly-like.

Adult Sexes Similar

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Sexes Similar

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All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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