Downy Woodpeckers, Picoides pubescens
Downy Woodpeckers are small, non-migratory woodpeckers that breed across North America, from southern Alaska to Florida, and even into parts of Mexico. They can be found in a wide range of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous forests, city parks, gardens, and woodlots.
During the breeding season, they primarily feed on insects, such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars, which are abundant in the trees and understory vegetation.
Downy Woodpeckers have several distinctive features, including a black-and-white plumage pattern and a small, chisel-like bill. Their small size and agile movements allow them to explore twigs and branches for their insect prey efficiently.
Courtship in Downy Woodpeckers involves vocalizations and displays. Males often engage in drumming on trees to establish territory and attract females. They also perform aerial displays and calls to court potential mates.
Downy Woodpeckers typically select deciduous trees, such as maple, birch, oak, and fruit trees, for cavity excavation. They may use dead or decaying trees, as the softer wood is easier to excavate. They also use nest boxes provided by birding enthusiasts.
They create relatively small cavities compared to larger woodpecker species. The entrance hole is usually around 1-1.5 inches (2.5-3.8 cm) in diameter. The depth of the cavity may vary but is typically around 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) deep. The cavity’s interior volume is relatively small, accommodating the woodpecker and its young comfortably. They do not add materials inside the nesting cavity.
Downy Woodpeckers may reuse the same cavity in consecutive years if it remains suitable and undisturbed. However, they are known to create new cavities each breeding season as well. These birds are not territorial, so they may not defend a specific nesting site from year to year.
The female downy typically lays 3-5 white eggs inside the cavity, which she incubates for about 12 days. Both parents participate in feeding the chicks after hatching.
For the first few weeks after hatching, the Downy Woodpecker chicks remain in the nest as nestlings. During this stage, they are entirely dependent on their parents for food and protection. Both the male and female parents take turns feeding the chicks a diet primarily consisting of insects, larvae, and spiders.
As the nestlings grow, their bodies are covered with soft downy feathers. Over time, these feathers begin to be replaced by adult feathers. The development of flight feathers is particularly crucial for the upcoming fledging process.
Typically, Downy Woodpeckers fledge when they are around 20-25 days old. However, the exact timing can vary based on environmental factors and food availability. During this phase, the young woodpeckers become more active and start to explore the area around the nest. They start exercising their wings, hopping around nearby branches, and making short flights. These initial flights may be wobbly and unsteady as they are still honing their flying skills.
Even after fledging, the young Downy Woodpeckers continue to receive parental care and food support. The parents guide them to suitable foraging areas and provide them with insects to eat. The fledglings may follow their parents and beg for food until they become proficient at finding food on their own.
Over the following weeks, the young Downy Woodpeckers become more skilled and confident in their flying abilities and foraging skills. They gradually gain independence from their parents and disperse to find their territories.
Avoid unnecessary interference during the fledging process. Always observe from a distance and allow nature to take its course. A seemingly helpless young bird is usually still being cared for by the parents. “Helping” may actually threaten the fledgling’s survival.
Downy Woodpeckers are non-migratory, and they remain in their breeding territories year-round. They are well-adapted to winter conditions and can often be seen foraging for insects and seeds on trees and shrubs.
During the winter months, Downy Woodpeckers adapt to colder temperatures by foraging on a variety of food sources, including suet, seeds, and berries. They are known to visit bird feeders, providing bird enthusiasts with opportunities to observe them up close.
Downy Woodpeckers readily use nest boxes when provided in suitable habitats. These nest boxes mimic natural tree cavities and can be placed in yards, parks, or other appropriate locations. Properly designed and placed nest boxes can be a valuable resource for these woodpeckers, especially in areas with limited natural nesting sites.