By Larry Czajkoski
The Downy is the smallest (about 6 ¾ inches long), most common, and most widespread woodpecker. Downy Woodpeckers have an all white breast and belly and a white stripe down the middle of the back. The wings and primary tail feathers are black with spots of white.
Its black and white plumage is very similar to that of the larger Hairy Woodpecker (which is about 9 ¼ inches long.) In both species the males have a red patch at the back of the head. As you can tell from the photo, this is a female Downy (that I photographed along Lake Lure’s Morse Park walking trails.) Telling the Downy and Hairy Woodpecker apart can be difficult. Aside from the shorter length body and bill of the Downy, the other feature to look for to help you distinguish the Downy from the Hairy is that the Downy’s outer tail feathers generally have faint dark bars or spots. Look very closely at the photo to see the faint dark spots near the end of the white outer tail feathers of this Downy.
Downy Woodpeckers are a favorite of backyard bird watchers because they are often the first woodpeckers to visit bird feeders. Common in any habitat with trees, the Downy is a habitat generalist; Downies are as equally at home in backyards as they are in remote woods. Downy Woodpeckers use their stiff tails and strong, clawed feet to propel themselves up, along or under tree branches and trunks. As they move along, Downies probe and chisel at the tree’s bark, searching for insects, insect eggs, ants, and spiders. They also eat fruits, such as sumac and poison ivy. At bird feeders, sunflower seeds and bits, suet, peanuts, and peanut butter are favorite foods.
Like all woodpeckers, Downies are cavity nesters. Each spring they excavate a new nest hole in the dead stump or trunk of a tree, usually one that is already rotting. So be a good neighbor to our woodpeckers; Leave a dead tree or large dead branch on a tree in your yard (in a safe location), and you will be much more likely to attract these beautiful birds.