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Our Backyard Birds: The Downy Woodpecker

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A female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on a limb.
Female Downy Woodpecker

Our Backyard Birds:

The Downy Woodpecker

(Picoides pubescens)



The Downy woodpecker mostly feeds on insects, which make up about 75% of its diet. In addition, it also eats seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries, especially at backyard feeding stations. To attract these amazing little birds to your backyard, you can offer their favorite food - suet. Besides that, they also like to eat black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and chunky peanut butter. By providing the right food, you can make Downy woodpeckers regular visitors to your backyard in no time.


To get an up-close view of the downy woodpecker, use a platform, hopper, or suet feeder. These feeders are ideal for attracting these tiny woodpeckers to your backyard.


Downy Woodpeckers are a smaller version of the classic woodpecker body. They have a straight, chisel-like bill, a blocky head, wide shoulders, and a straight-backed posture that allows them to lean away from tree limbs and onto their tail feathers. Compared to other woodpeckers, their bill appears to be smaller for their size. Downy Woodpeckers are characterized by a checkered black-and-white appearance. Their black upper parts are marked with white on the wings, while 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. Additionally, the outer tail feathers are usually white with a few black spots. To distinguish female downy woodpeckers from males, you can look for a red spot on the back of the male's head. This distinctive feature is absent in females. Female downy woodpeckers are also more commonly observed foraging for insects on the trunks of trees and other major branches.


The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker species in North America. They are commonly seen at backyard bird feeders and are widespread throughout the United States. These birds are known as "downies" and are skilled acrobats in the air. They can effortlessly maneuver through trees and other vegetation, moving horizontally and even backward on tree trunks. Their stiff tails also help them roost and prop up on surfaces. They are also able to hang upside down to access insects.

A female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on a stick
Tiny Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers are permanent residents of many areas. However, some travel south for long distances.

Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers select a nest site, which is often a dead part of a deciduous tree. They work together to excavate a hole, which can take up to 3 weeks to complete. The cavity holes are generally 1-1.5 inches in diameter and 6-12 inches deep, providing ample space for their eggs. Once the hole is complete, they line it with wood chips to create a soft, comfortable pad.

Downy woodpeckers are known for being territorial creatures. Whenever an intruder approaches, they show aggression by fanning out their tails, raising their crest, and holding their bill high. If the intruder doesn't back off, the Downies won't hesitate to attack.

A male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on a small branch
Male Downy woodpecker

These beautiful woodpeckers are a common sight in both winter and summer backyards. Their striking black and white patterns, coupled with their bright red heads, and acrobatic movements make them a favorite among many bird lovers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Downy woodpecker and how you can attract them to your backyard. If this is your first time visiting my website or reading one of my blog posts, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Please subscribe here so you can receive updates on the next blog posts on Backyard Birding. You will also receive occasional discounts and newsletters. Remember to follow the Nature First and Leave No Trace principles and always strive to leave places better than you found them. Please share this blog post with your friends and family who have a love for birds, bird photography, or backyard birding.


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