Out My Backdoor: Downy Woodpecker is a Winter Favorite

Log Nesting Structure
Downy Woodpecker/Terry W. Johnson

By Terry W. Johnson

Although Georgians feed birds throughout the entire year, more do so during the winter than at any other season. At this time of the year, backyard birders offer their feathered guests a number of foods, including a wide variety of seeds, peanuts, jelly, dairy products and even doughnuts and other baked goods. This smorgasbord attracts a wide variety of birds. However, none is probably more welcomed than the downy woodpecker.

The downy woodpecker is named for the white, downy feathers found on the bird’s lower back. Roughly the size of a house sparrow (about 6 ½ to 6 ¾ inches long), the downy holds the title of smallest woodpecker in North America. One thing that strikes me every time I see one is that it looks far smaller than those depicted in field guides.

The much larger hairy woodpecker—at about 9 ½ inches long—appears almost identical to the downy; however, it looks like a downy on steroids. If you look closely, one major difference is the size of the bill on each bird. Whereas the downy's bill is short and stubby, the hairy's bill is far longer and thicker. If you get an extremely good look at the hairy, you will also note its white outer tail feathers lack the barring seen on the outer tail feathers of the downy.

Suffice it to say, although hairy woodpeckers will come to feeders, if you see a black-and-white woodpecker with a white streak down its back at your feel, in most cases, you will be looking at a downy.

Male and female downy woodpeckers look identical except for the fact that males display a distinctive red patch on the back of the head. Female downies lack the red mark.

During the winter, downy woodpeckers are usually loners. I cannot recall a downy ever visiting my feeders in the winter accompanied by another.

Yet downy woodpeckers will travel about foraging for food in small bands with Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches and tufted titmice. Even then, they rarely travel very far from their winter roost site.

For some unknown reason, during this season downy woodpeckers typically do not roost in their nesting cavities. Instead, before winter they chisel out new cavities that are then used only for roosting. At times, they will share their winter roosts with other birds.

Surprisingly, although downy woodpeckers will roost in nest boxes, they rarely nest in them. Because the birds are so small, they can use bluebird boxes equipped with the standard 1 1/2-inch entrance holes.

When downy woodpeckers visit our feeders, they seem to prefer beef suet over all other animal fats. Beef suet is rendered from the fat that surrounds the kidneys of cattle. This fat is very hard and opaque and does not melt in warm weather.

When I was a boy growing up in a small town, I could buy beef suet from a man that ran a local butcher shop. Nowadays few of us are blessed with a source of real beef suet. As such, we are forced to buy preformed suet cakes. The main ingredient in store-bought suet is animal fat.  This suet spoils easily, especially when temperatures rise. The suet is translucent and prepared from fat found anywhere in a beef carcass. The fortunate thing, however, is that birds will definitely eat suet cakes.

Another favorite food of the downy woodpecker is sunflower seeds. However, in my backyard downies are more likely to eat suet than sunflower seeds. These birds also are partial to shelled, green peanuts served up in special peanut feeders. The problem with this food it is often difficult to find. Many grocery stores do not stock the peanuts. I was told by one produce manager the reason for this is that they spoil easily. But you can usually find them in stores that specialize in birding supplies.

Among the other lesser-known foods consumed by downy woodpeckers at feeders are delicacies such as cracked corn, coconut, American cheese, bread and even doughnuts.

If you are among the growing number of people that maintain at least one hummingbird feeder in their yard during the winter, do not be surprised if you spot a downy enjoying a drink of sugar water at your hummingbird feeder. This is by no means a common occurrence; however, it does happen.

When we see birds such as the downy woodpecker descending on our feeders it is easy for us to assume they obtain most of their food at feeders. In truth, far more often than not they rely principally on wild foods to meet their nutritional needs.

As for birdbaths, for some reason downy woodpeckers are reticent to drink at them. Although I have seen a northern flicker drink at one of my birdbaths, I must confess I have never seen a downy do so.

The winter is an excellent time to observe downy woodpeckers foraging for food away from feeders.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that most hardwood trees have shed their leaves. Consequently, you can easily observe the birds moving about trees looking for seeds and insects.

If you have a good pair of binoculars and can determine the sex of the birds you are watching, you can see the different foraging behaviors of male and female downies.

For example, downy woodpeckers routinely feed on beetle larvae, chiseled out of limbs and branches. They will also eat ants and other insects moving about on warm winter days. However, the sex of the bird determines where it will most often search for these protein-rich critters. Male downy woodpeckers seem to prefer feeding higher in trees among smaller branches. Females are more likely to search for food along the trunk and larger branches. If a conflict arises between a male and female downy woodpecker for the feeding rights to an area with abundant food, the male will usually keep the female from feeding there.

I am sure you are familiar with golden rod galls: These are the hard, ball-shaped swollen sections of goldenrod stems. When I was growing up, we called them "head knockers." For some reason that escapes me, we boys thought it was great fun to break off a goldenrod stem containing a goldenrod gall and try to pop each other on top of the head with the hard gall.

It never occurred to us these galls contain grubs that are an important winter food for the downy woodpecker. If you see a downy woodpecker pecking out a grub hidden in a goldenrod gall, more than likely the bird will be a male.

Among the other foods eaten by downies during the winter are the berries of the Virginia creeper, ash, poison ivy and serviceberry. Perhaps their favorite wild seed is the acorn, although downies will also eat the seeds of the tupelo, sumac, dogwood, beech, hickory and others.

When the first colonists began transforming the forested landscape of North America into homesteads, villages, orchards and pastures, downy woodpeckers were one of the first birds to adapt to living close to the settlers. At that time, they routinely nested in apple trees around homes and in orchards.

Among the many early Americans impressed with the small woodpecker that rarely stopped to rest and seemed to be constantly looking for food was John James Audubon. He wrote in his journal that the downy was "not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity."

This winter, if you take the time to watch the downy woodpeckers that visit your backyard I am sure you will agree: The downy woodpecker is indeed one busy little bird.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”