Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens

By Lynnie Summerlin

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of all the woodpeckers. It is also the most common woodpecker in North America. Downy Woodpecker is the common name and the scientific name is Picoides pubescens. The Downy Woodpecker is in the class birds, the order woodpeckers, and the family woodpeckers.

The Downy Woodpecker lives year round in Alaska, Canada, and in parts of the United States. Each of the six subspecies of the Downy Woodpecker is distributed in a specific area within this territory. The most common subspecies found in Virginia is the Northern Downy. However, the only difference between the Northern Downy and the other Downys is that they are slightly larger and have whiter underparts.

The habitat of Downy Woodpeckers consists of wooded areas almost everywhere in the United States except for certain drier areas in the Southwest. Their favorite types of trees are river groves, shade trees, orchards, poplars, and willows. They like to visit parks and gardens in rural and urban areas. The Downy is diurnal, and is often found roosting in fence posts during cold weather.

Downy Woodpeckers have black backs with white specks, and black wings with lines of white spots. Their breasts are white, and they have white lines that run from their chins past their eyes. Their outer tails are white with black specks. They have one and a half inch beaks and their wingspan is about a foot. They are 7 inches long and weigh about 1 ounce. A distinguishing characteristic of males is that they have a red cap on the back of their heads, while females do not.

Downy Woodpeckers obtain their food through drilling into rotting and decaying wood. They are looking for hidden insects, beetles, weevils, moths, wasps, and insect larvae. They are also known to feed on berries, even poisonous types, certain flower petals and buds. They are attracted to feeders that contain suet, meat scraps, nuts, cheese, and various fruits.

Downy Woodpeckers are peaceful animals that are often the target of larger birds of prey. Their main protection is to flee when under attack. Their flight pattern is comparable to that of other Woodpeckers; they use a chaotic pattern with many turns and dips.

Woodpeckers have been observed drilling into trees as often as a hundred times a minute. In order to protect their brains, a pad of spongy material is located between their beaks and their skulls. There are special feathers located near their nostrils to prevent inhalation of wood chips caused by drilling. The Native Americans used to tell folk stories about the Downy woodpeckers believing that their red heads were a symbol of courage.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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