Downy Woodpecker: Meet the Downies

Updated: May 17, 2024

A downy woodpecker is a small black and white bird that visits suet feeders. Listen to their call and see photos of males and females.

What Does a Downy Woodpecker Look Like?

downy woodpeckerCourtesy Darlene Reinoehl
A male downy woodpecker has a red spot on the back of its head

One of winter’s most underrated joys is watching through a kitchen window as a downy woodpecker flits from suet feeders to nearby trees. Affectionately called downies, these woodpeckers might easily be mistaken for a nuthatch clinging acrobatically to the side of a feeder, or a peppy chickadee, with its bold black-and-white coloring.

Look for a bird slightly smaller than a robin with a white belly and back, black wings with white spots, and white facial stripes against a mostly black head. Near the Pacific coast, some birds are muddled-looking—their bright bellies have tan accents, and they have fewer white dots spotting their wings.

Downies measure 6-1/2 inches long with a wingspan of 12 inches. Hairy woodpeckers have the same coloration but are larger than downies. A practiced eye can tell them apart by the size of their beaks, too. The hairy’s beak is almost as long as its head, while downies’ beaks are shorter, comparatively.

Check out more woodpecker species birders should know.

Male and Female Downy Woodpeckers

female downy woodpeckerDanny Brown
Female downy woodpecker

Males and females can be told apart by a red marking on the back of the male’s head. Downy woodpeckers form pairs very early in the season. Courtship begins toward the end of winter. Both sexes drum on trees (and sometimes unfortunate chimneys) to claim their territory and indicate they’re ready to mate. Listen for this rhythmic sound as early as January.

They also call out to each other in whinnying, high-pitched notes that are accented by excited piks. Once paired, the partners dig out a cavity in a dead tree for their nest.

Learn all about red bellied woodpeckers.

What Do Downy Woodpeckers Eat?

Bnbbyc17 Susan Goewey 2Courtesy Susan Goewey
Downy woodpecker dad feeding a juvenile at a suet feeder.

Their diet mainly consists of insects, caterpillars, berries and nuts. Downies snack on insects that harm trees, like bark beetles and apple borers—so be thankful if you see one hopping on the branches in your yard.

They are drawn to feeders in many locations, both developed and rural. Hang their favorite treats, suet and peanut butter, to attract them.

Kimberly Sullivan, associate professor of biology at Utah State University, suggests getting suet scraps from the butcher and hanging them in a mesh bag, along with traditional cage feeders. In warmer months when suet spoils easily, black oil sunflower seeds, millet and peanuts are suitable meals.

Like most woodpeckers, downies use their exceptional long tongues to scavenge. “The very bristly tip of their tongues, almost like a bottle brush, impales and holds onto larvae,” says Kimberly.

Downies’ small size also gives them another advantage over their fellow woodpeckers. They are adept at climbing up large tree trunks and branches, but they also glean bugs and grubs from weeds, grasses and thin twigs that can support their 1-ounce frames.

Mixed Flock Behavior

In winter, downies are more social, teaming up with kinglets, chickadees and nuthatches to maximize their foraging efforts. “When a mixed flock comes into their territory, they usually join it,” Kimberly says.

Chickadees are the sentinels of the group and are usually the first to call out a nearby predator. This dynamic allows downies to spend more time digging in through the tree bark and less time on high alert.

Discover the 4 best foods for attracting woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker Call

Listen to the downy woodpecker’s call. This species makes a short and flat “pik” sound.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Nest and Eggs

woodpecker nestCourtesy Roberto White
Downy woodpecker nest

Downies excavate or reuse a cavity in a dead tree or use a woodpecker nesting box. The female lays four to five white eggs.

“I feed downies year-round! There’s nothing cuter than baby woodpeckers learning to come to the feeder in spring,” says Boni Trombetta of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Meet the red headed woodpecker: redheads of the bird world.

Downy Woodpecker Range Map and Habitat

Downies reside in most of the United States and Canada, with the exception of the far north and the driest zones in the Southwest. These cheery checkered birds have expanded their ranges in the last few years, despite a changing, more urban, environment. You might see them in any open wooded area, including parks and backyards.

“There has been an expansion,” says Kimberly. “They’ve done quite well in suburban areas because they visit bird feeders and don’t mind open areas.”

Downy Woodpecker Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

About the Expert

Kimberly Sullivan is an ornithologist and associate professor of biology at Utah State University. Kimberly received an award from The Animal Behavior Society for her studies of small birds.

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