February’s nature feature, Piocoides pubescens, the Downy Woodpecker, is the smallest woodpecker in North America. Both male and female appear to have checkered feathers. They have black feathers on the lower parts of their bodies, and their wings are checked with white. Their heads are boldly striped, and their backs have a broad white stripe down the center. Their outer tail feathers are usually white with a few black spots. Males have a small red patch on the back of their heads. The Downy has a unique small bill, smaller than other woodpeckers.
They range from Alaska across Canada and south through the US, except in the far southwest. These little woodpeckers prefer open woodlands, deciduous trees, and brushy, weedy areas. They also like orchards, city parks, back yards, and vacant lots. They do not migrate and are often seen in mixed flocks with chickadees and nuthatches. They are cavity nesters and roost in their tree cavities in the winter.
They are common visitors to bird feeders and love suet and sunflower seeds. I just looked out my window and saw both a Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker at my feeders. The Hairy resembles the Downy, except it is larger and has a longer bill.
The small and agile Downy moves more acrobatically than larger woodpeckers. It balances on tiny branches and slender plant stems. It moves quickly over tree trunks, branches, stems of grasses and wildflowers. It leans against its stiffened tail for support. It can easily move horizontally and downward. In late summer, it perches on tall weeds, such as goldenrod, hammering at a plant gall to get at the larvae inside. The male and female look for food on separate parts of trees. While the male forages high in trees, the female forages in mid to lower levels. Insects are their favorite diet. Some harmful insects that they eat include corn earworms, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. About a quarter of their diet consists of berries, acorns, and grains.
The male and female both excavate the nest cavity, which can take 1-3 weeks. The entrance hole is round. The cavity is 6-12 inches deep, wider toward the bottom to make room for the eggs and an adult. The nest hole is lined with wood chips. They like dead deciduous trees or dead parts of live trees because wood that has been infected with fungus is softer and easier to clear out. They have been discovered nesting in walls of buildings.
The female lays one brood of 3-8 pure white eggs. Both parents take turns incubating them. The young will leave the nest in 18 to 21 days.
Piocoides pubescens becomes noisy in the spring and summer, both with a shrill call and by drumming on trees. Instead of singing, it drums loudly against pieces of wood or metal. The drumming sound is not associated with looking for food. Feeding birds make very little noise when digging into wood.
As with all birds, Downies have some interesting and unique behaviors. When having a dispute with another bird, they fan their tails, raise their head feathers, and jerk their heads from side to side. In the spring, males and females court by flying between trees with slow, fluttering wing beats that resemble a butterfly’s.
Ornithologists believe that Downy Woodpeckers’ populations are stable. Because they sometimes nest along fences, the shift from wooden to metal fence posts has reduced their numbers. However, cleaning and thinning forests has been in their favor, as they do well in young forests.
If you have been filling your bird feeders and putting out suet, the chances are good that you have had this little drummer bird paying you a visit.
As March approaches, the Lafayette County Bluebird Society members are making plans to get their nest boxes ready for the return of the Eastern Bluebird. This year’s goal is to devise a way to keep raccoons from stealing young birds and eggs. I will keep you posted on our progress and success. The public is invited to attend the LCBS Spring Meeting held at the Talmer Bank Community Room on April 7 at 2:00. There will be speakers, door prizes, and refreshments. This gathering provides a great opportunity for people to learn about Eastern Bluebirds and how to attract them to your property.
Yesterday I heard a male cardinal proclaiming his territory with great enthusiasm. That is always a welcome sign of spring. Happy bird watching as the seasons change!
— Sue Cashman, a member of the LCBS, writes Nature Notes once a month for the Republican Journal.