The smallest of all North American woodpeckers, the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is also one of the most common and widespread woodpecker species on the continent (3) (4) (5). It is named for the soft, downy white feathers on its lower back (3) (5) and is easily recognised by its compact size, chequered black-and-white plumage and relatively short, straight, chisel-tipped bill (2) (3) (6).
Both the male and female downy woodpecker have black upperparts, with a broad white stripe down the back, and black wings that are marked with white spots. The tail is also black, usually with white outer tail feathers that are barred with black. The throat, chin and underside of the body are white to pale buff or greyish, and the downy woodpecker’s head is marked with bold black and white stripes (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
The bill of the downy woodpecker is dark grey to bluish-black (3) (6), and there are tufts of white feathers over the nostrils (3) (4). The legs and feet are grey to bluish-green (3) (6).
The male downy woodpecker can be distinguished from the female by a small red patch on the back of the head (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), as well as by its slightly shorter tail and longer bill (4) (5). Juvenile downy woodpeckers are similar in appearance to the adults, but their black markings are duller and browner and their white markings more greyish or buffy, often with fine streaking. The juvenile also has pale or olive-brown rather than deep brown or brown-red eyes (3) (4) (6). Juvenile male downy woodpeckers typically have a pale reddish patch on the forehead, but not on the back of the head as in the adult (3) (4) (5) (6).
The downy woodpecker varies slightly in size and colouration across its large range, and a number of subspecies are recognised (3) (5) (6). Individuals in the west are usually darker and have less white in the wings than those in the east, and birds in the south are generally smaller than those further north (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
This species is most easily confused with the similar-looking hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus). However, the hairy woodpecker is larger and has a relatively longer bill than the downy woodpecker (2) (3) (4) (6), as well as completely white outer tail feathers that lack any black barring (2) (6). The two species also differ in their calls and habitat preferences (2) (3) (4) (6).
Both the male and female downy woodpecker produce a characteristic “whinnying” call, consisting of a series of high-pitched notes that drop in pitch towards the end (2) (3) 6). This species will also give a range of other calls, including a sharp ‘pik’, as well as a ‘chip’, ‘kick’ and ‘kweek’ (2) (3) (5) (6) (7). Like other woodpeckers, the downy woodpecker also drums its bill loudly against wood to claim a territory, attract a mate or advertise a potential nest site (2) (3) (5) (7).
- Picus pubescens.
- Length: 14 - 17 cm (2)
- Wingspan: 25 - 30 cm (2)
- 21 - 32 g (2) (3) (4)
Downy woodpecker biology
An active, acrobatic bird (2), the downy woodpecker is able to feed on the outermost branches of trees and can also balance on slender plant galls and weed stems, allowing it to access food that larger woodpeckers cannot (2) (3) (5). It also takes food from branches and trunks, and occasionally forages on the ground (2) (3). Interestingly, male downy woodpeckers generally forage on smaller branches and higher in the trees than females, and will chase females away from these more productive feeding spots (2) (3) (5) (6).
The diet of the downy woodpecker consists mainly of insects, particularly wood-boring beetle larvae, as well as ants, caterpillars and spiders. It also eats some plant material, including berries, nuts and seeds (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), and will occasionally drink sugar water from hummingbird feeders (2) (3). The downy woodpecker obtains its food by plucking it from surfaces, probing crevices or excavating under bark (3) (5) (6). It may also hammer on galls to extract fly larvae from within (2).
Although mostly solitary in winter, pairs of downy woodpeckers often forage with mixed flocks of other bird species (2) (3) (6). During conflicts with other individuals, the downy woodpecker may give a threat display that involves fanning the tail, raising the feathers on the head and waving the beak from side to side (2) (6) (7). In spring, both sexes perform a fluttering courtship display, flying between trees with slow, butterfly-like wing beats (2) (3) (7).
The downy woodpecker may begin to display breeding behaviour in late winter (6), starting to lay claim to a nest site as early as January or February (5) (7). Egg laying occurs between April and May in southern areas, and between May and July further north (3) (6). Both the male and female downy woodpecker spend up to three weeks excavating a nest hole, usually in a dead tree or in a dead part of a living tree, particularly where the wood has been softened by fungal infection (2) (3) (5) (6). The nest is lined only with wood chippings (2) (3).
The female downy woodpecker lays a clutch of between 3 and 8 white eggs, which are incubated by both adults for around 12 days (2) (3) (5). The young downy woodpeckers leave the nest hole at 18 to 23 days old, after which the adults continue to care for them for up to 3 more weeks (2) (3) (5) (6). Usually, only one brood is raised each year (2), but some southern populations may occasionally raise two (5). The downy woodpecker begins to breed from about a year old (3) and has been known to live for up to 11 years in the wild (2) (3) (5).
Downy woodpecker range
The downy woodpecker is widespread across North America, occurring from Alaska, across southern Canada and south through most of the United States, as far as southern California, Florida and the Gulf Coast (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). It may sometimes also reach into Mexico (6) (8).
Although the downy woodpecker is resident year-round across most of its range, the most northerly populations sometimes move south in winter, and mountain populations may move to lower elevations (5) (6). This species has been recorded from sea level up to elevations of around 2,750 metres (6).
Downy woodpecker habitat
The downy woodpecker generally inhabits open, deciduous woodland, often along streams or forest edges (2) (3) (5) (6). In northern parts of its range, it may also be found in mixed conifer forests with areas of deciduous trees (3) (5). This species commonly occurs in human-altered habitats such as orchards, parks and gardens, where it regularly visits bird feeders (2) (3) (5).
As it excavates its nests in dead wood, the downy woodpecker requires habitats with adequate amounts of dead wood in the form of fallen trees, dead branches, snags (dead trees that are still standing), or even fence posts (4) (5).
Downy woodpecker status
The downy woodpecker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Downy woodpecker threats
The downy woodpecker is abundant and widespread, and is not currently believed to be at risk of extinction (8). Extensive forest clearance and intensive, even-aged forest monocultures may have negative effects on its populations, but some forest clearance and thinning benefits the downy woodpecker as it does well in younger forests and along forest edges (2) (3). As it sometimes nests in fence posts, a shift from using wooden to metal posts, together with the removal of fencerows, may potentially affect its numbers (2) (3).
Fortunately, the downy woodpecker’s small size allows it to exploit foraging niches and nesting sites that are unsuitable for larger woodpeckers, meaning that it is less constrained by habitat than other species (3) (5).
Downy woodpecker conservation
There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently targeted at the downy woodpecker, but further studies into its breeding behaviour and populations may be beneficial (3).
The downy woodpecker often feeds on tree-damaging insect pests (2) (5), and is therefore generally welcomed by foresters and orchard owners (5).
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- A plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
- Abnormal growths in plants, caused by disease, fungi, bacteria, or by attack by invertebrates.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
- The cultivation of a single plant species over a given area.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (May, 2012)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Downy woodpecker (May, 2012)
Jackson, J.A. and Ouellet, H.R. (2002) Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
Ritchison, G. (1999) Wild Bird Guides: Downy Woodpecker. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
Mobley, J.A. (2009) Birds of the World. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, New York.
Winkler, H., Christie, D.A. and Nurney, D. (2010) Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
Kilham, L. (1962) Reproductive behavior of downy woodpeckers. The Condor, 64(2): 126-133.
BirdLife International - Downy woodpecker (May, 2012)