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downy woodpecker

Picoides pubescens

What do they look like?

Downy woodpeckers are smallest woodpeckers in North America. They are 14.5 to 17 cm long and weigh 21 to 28 g. They are mostly black-and-white. Their back is black with white down the center and their wings are black with white spots. Their head is black with a white stripe above and below each eye, and their tail is black with white outer feathers. Their chest and belly are white to grayish.

Downy woodpeckers have whitish tufts at the base of their thick, black bills. Males and females are look the same, except that males have a small red patch at the back of their neck. Young males usually have a red patch on the forehead instead of their neck. Young females do not have any red at all.

Downy woodpeckers are easily confused with hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus). Hairy woodpeckers look very similar to downys, but they are larger. Downy woodpeckers also have a shorter, stubbier bill (shorter than the length of their head) than hairy woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers have much quieter calls that hairy woodpeckers, and usually forage on smaller plants.

There are eight subspecies of downy woodpeckers. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    21 to 28 g
    0.74 to 0.99 oz
  • Range length
    14.5 to 17 cm
    5.71 to 6.69 in
  • Range wingspan
    83 to 105 mm
    3.27 to 4.13 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.383 W

Where do they live?

Downy woodpeckers are native to the Nearctic Region. They are found throughout North America, from southeastern Alaska east to Newfoundland, and south to southern California and Florida. Most downy woodpeckers stay in the same area year-round. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

What kind of habitat do they need?

In the northern part of their range, downy woodpeckers prefer open, deciduous forests and woodlands. This includes young, mixed forests of oak, hickory, beech, maple and hemlock. They are less common in conifer-dominated forests unless the forest has deciduous in the understory. Downy woodpeckers are also common in orchards, parks and in suburbs that have a lot of trees. In the south, downy woodpeckers prefer riparian woods or moist, aspen-willow stands. They are also found in the southern Rocky Mountains. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • These animals are found in the following types of habitat
  • temperate
  • Range elevation
    2744 (high) m
    9002.62 (high) ft

How do they reproduce?

Downy woodpeckers are monogamous. Breeding pairs usually begin forming in late winter and early spring (January to March). Pairs usually stay together for the length of a summer, and may mate together for more than one year. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

The male and female excavate a nest cavity together. The nest cavity is usually located in a tree limb. When the nest is complete, the female lays 3 to 8 eggs (average 4.8). She lays one egg each day. Both parents incubate the eggs. The male incubates at night and the adults take turns during the day. The eggs all hatch on the same day after 12 days of incubation.

This nestlings are altricial (helpless) when they hatch, but they develop very quickly. The parents brood them constantly for the first 4 days after hatching. Both parents also feed the chicks. The chicks leave the nest after 18 to 21 days. The parents continue to take care of the fledglings for at least three weeks. They feed them, lead them to food sources and warn them of potential predators. Most young downy woodpeckers are able to breed the next year. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Downy woodpeckers breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Downy woodpeckers begin breeding in late winter (January through March)
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 (high) days
  • Range fledging age
    18 to 21 days
  • Range time to independence
    3 (low) weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Both parents incubate the eggs, keep the nest clean, feed the young and protect them from predators. The young remain with the parents for up to three weeks after fledging. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

One wild downy woodpecker lived to be 11 years and 11 months old. Most downy woodpeckers probably do not live this long. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

How do they behave?

Downy woodpeckers are active during the day. They stay in the same general area year-round and do not migrate. They are solitary and territorial. Males defend a territory against other males, and females defend a territory against females. When an intruder enters a downy woodpecker's territory, the resident woodpecker uses threat displays, such as wing flicking, or fanning their tail, raising their crest and holding their bill high to try to drive the intruder away. If threat displays do not work, downy woodpeckers may attack the intruder, grappling with them in mid-air. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Range territory size
    0.044 (low) km^2

Home Range

Home ranges range from from 0.02 to 0.12 square kilometers and vary with habitat quality (smaller home ranges are required in high-quality habitat). Home ranges are smaller during the nestling period, when adults need to remain near the nest. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

How do they communicate with each other?

Downy woodpeckers use calls and body signals to communicate. They produce a variety of sounds, including "pik", rattle, scolding, "wad", "chirp", squeak, screech, and distress calls. The "pik" call introduces the rattle call, and these are used during aggressive interactions. Short calls, the "wad" and "chirp", are uttered by young birds. A longer note call, the squeak, is also uttered by young downy woodpeckers. The screech and distress calls are used to signal alarm.

Drumming is a common non-vocal sound that downy woodpeckers use to communicate. This sound is used most often in late winter and spring> It is used to establish and defend a territory, to attract a mate, and to communicate between mates.

Downy woodpeckers also use body postures to communicate. Bill pointing and waving, wing flicking, crest raising, wing spreading, tail spreading, head turning and head swinging are some of the body postures that downy woodpeckers use to communicate. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

What do they eat?

Downy woodpeckers are omnivorous. Their primary foods include insects and other arthropods, fruits, seeds, sap and some cambium tissue. Beetles, weevils, ants, bugs, plant lice and caterpillars are among the insects eaten. They also consume scale insects and spiders. Downy woodpeckers will also eat suet from backyard feeders.

Downy woodpeckers glean insects from the surfaces of trees, shrubs and large weeds, probe into crevices and excavate shallow holes into wood to find food. Males and females within a population often differ in their foraging habits. For example, in one study in Illinois, males spent more time excavating than females, and females probed bark surfaces more than males.

Downy woodpeckers drink water by scooping it up with their bill. They drink from water that collects on horizontal limb surfaces, in epiphytes, puddles, streams, ponds and bird baths. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • sap or other plant fluids

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Adult downy woodpeckers are preyed upon by several species of birds of prey. To hide themselves from predators, downy woodpeckers flatten themselves against the surface of the tree bark and remain motionless. Downy woodpeckers may also dodge a hawk by darting behind a tree branch, or winding their way around the branch to avoid the hawk. In urban areas, downy woodpecker predators include rats and domestic cats. Eggs and nestlings are vulnerable to climbing predators such as snakes and squirrels, as well as other woodpeckers, including red-bellied woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers. By nesting in cavities, downy woodpeckers avoid predation of their eggs and young by animals that cannot get to these cavities. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Downy woodpeckers affect the populations of the insects they prey upon and the plants they eat. They also provide valuable food for their predators. They are host to several species of body parasites, including hippoboscid flies, muscid flies and blowflies.

Abandoned downy woodpecker nest cavities may be used by other cavity-nesting species.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of downy woodpeckers on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Downy woodpeckers eat wood-boring beetle larvae and other insects that humans consider to be pests. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Downy woodpecker populations seem to be stable and/or increasing in some areas. There are an estimated 13,000,000 downy woodpeckers worldwide. This species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.


Jackson, J., H. Ouellet. 2002. Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Pp. 1-32 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 613. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Kirschbaum, K. 2005. "Picoides pubescens" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 23, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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