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What Time is it in Nature: Downy Woodpecker

November 2, 2013

As the weather cools, the birds at Prairie Ridge transition from the summer bird population to the overwintering population.  Some birds are only here for the winter months, but others remain on the grounds year-round.  The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is one of our popular year-round residents.

Downy woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is the smallest woodpecker species in North America, topping out at about 7 inches long.  The birds are mostly black on top with a checkerboard-like pattern of white feathers dispersed across the surface of the wings and a thick white stripe down the back.  The head has bold, white stripes and the belly is mostly white.  Male Downies also have a vivid red patch on the back of the head.  Downy Woodpeckers look very similar to another local species, the Hairy Woodpecker, but can be distinguished by their smaller size (Hairies are larger) and their smaller-than-average, more dainty beak.

Downy Woodpeckers prefer to spend their time in deciduous open forests, especially those along streams, but they are sometimes seen in open areas or grasslands.  Like many other woodpecker species, they hollow out cavities in dead trees and build their nests inside.  They also hunt for insects (mostly beetles and ants) by hopping up and down the bark and drilling into trees with their beaks.  However, because they are small, Downy Woodpeckers can also feed in areas where other woodpeckers are too heavy to feed, such as in brushy areas or on sturdy plants in grassland areas.

Downy Woodpeckers are territorial and feed within a fairly well-defined space.  Like other woodpeckers, they are not songbirds and do not sing.  However, they use loud calls and “drum” their beaks against trees to mark their spaces within the forest.  While Downy Woodpeckers usually forage within their territories, they are known to flock with other birds during the winter, such as chickadees and nuthatches, so you can often see them feeding with other birds at feeders.  This behavior is thought to allow them to find food more easily and avoid being eaten by predators.

Downy Woodpeckers are a fairly common sight at Prairie Ridge!  On your next visit, look for them hopping up and down trees along the Forest Trail or munching on seeds and nuts at the bird feeders.  You might even hear them calling or drumming in the woods!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Peter de Wit, used under Creative Commons license.)

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