Soon after sunrise on a morning in late September I heard a
tentative, rhythmic tapping outside my study window. I couldnt locate the bird but
knew it to be a downy woodpecker from the exploratory, almost questioning, sound of the
tapping. Was it one of the pair that nested in the big Norway maple in the side yard?
never found the nest. It was probably in some partially decayed branch high in the tree.
These little black and white woodpeckers are a major presence in the yard; tapping,
calling the familiar pick note and, on occasion, singing the whinnying
"song" that descends in pitch. Being non-migratory, the downy woodpecker is
always here, a bird I can count on at any time of the year.
Both male and female are frequent visitors to
the feeder for suet, Lee Trotts bird pudding, and sunflower seed that the bird takes
to the maple tree, wedges into a crevice, and whacks away to get the kernel.
mild, late-summer days, Lee Trott and I are enjoying meals at the round table in our side
yard. Yesterday we watched a female downy woodpecker at the suet feeder just a few yards
away. She is quite tame and seems unaware of our presence. I say female, though it may be
a young male. The bright red spot on the back of the head of the male does not appear
until after his autumnal molt, when he replaces his feathers with bright new ones.
Like all woodpeckers, the downy lives in a vertical world as he clings to the trunk of
the maple tree with zygodactyl feet: two toes in front and two behind. Other birds in the
yard chickadees, titmice, cardinals and robins have a three-in-front and
one-behind toe arrangement. This is effective in perching across a twig and walking
or hopping on the ground.
Woodpeckers also have stiff tail feathers that they use in propping on a tree trunk
when excavating for insects within the tree. They can hear beetle larvae moving around so
know exactly where to dig. A thick but spongy skull absorbs the shock of forceful
Piocoides pubescens is the scientific name of the downy. At just under six
inches long, it is the smallest woodpecker in North America. Its name is derived from both
Latin picus meaning simply "woodpecker" and Greek eioides
translating into "resembling." The downy does not resemble a woodpecker,
it is a woodpecker! There is some scientific confusion there. Pubescens
refers to the soft feathers at the base of the downys short bill. Ornithologists
speculate that these feathers protect the birds eyes when chips are flying.
The 71/2-inch hairy woodpecker, Piocoides villosus, is almost identical to the
downy except for a distinct difference in size. The bill of the downy woodpecker is much
shorter in proportion to its body than the long, typical woodpecker-like bill of the
hairy. This identical-except-in-size occurs in other birds: sharp-shinned and
Coopers hawks and in sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs. Evolution has worked
a curious magic in these species, for a survival purpose not yet understood.
When working over a tree trunk, a downy will dodge or slip around if a predator
appears. If the predator is a hawk, the big bird is momentarily confused when searching on
the other side of the tree for what he hopes will be a future meal. His prey has
disappeared! The downy has flattened itself against the tree trunk and looks like part of
the bark. The bird is motionless and depends on this and protective coloration to escape
detection. The downy will also slip around the tree when human watchers move in too close.
It is possible that the tapping I heard this morning was a downy woodpecker excavating
a sleeping chamber for the winter. Though a pair of downy woodpeckers remains mated
throughout the year, each excavates separate sleeping cavities for the fall and winter.
In March the pair will begin serious work on a nesting cavity with an entrance of 11/4
inches in diameter. At the bottom of this gourd-shaped excavation, a bowl is hollowed out
in which white eggs are laid. No nest material is required; soft wood chips do very well
Since a pair of downy woodpeckers uses a nest cavity for only one breeding season, last
years nesting hollow will be available for other birds that do not build open nests.
Chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, nuthatches and house wrens seek out and build their nests
in last years downy woodpecker nest cavity. Its a sort of recycling that
benefits a number of birds and even small mammals such as flying squirrels.
In 1832, Alexander Wilson, the "Father of American Ornithology," wrote,
"The principal characteristics of this little bird are diligence, familiarity, and
perseverance." Alexander Wilson is my ornithological hero; as usual, this great man
said it all in a very few words.