by Darcy Thomas

Downy Woodpecker – Photo courtesy of Linda Du Lac

Downy Woodpeckers have always captured my attention with their striking black and white feathers and industrious energy, as they go about nimbly foraging for insects along tree branches. They often flock with other birds so I can usually count on enjoying a lovely array of birds when Downys are present.

Of the ten woodpeckers found in Montana, the Downy is the smallest – a physical trait that comes with certain advantages. Downys foray in a niche separate from other woodpeckers. Their small size helps them find insects, berries and grains in small spaces such as tiny branches, shrubs, and even the slender stems of weeds, grasses, and wildflowers that are unreachable by larger woodpeckers. They like to perch atop tall plants with galls that they can hammer at to get to the larva inside. I’ve even seen them drinking from my hummingbird feeders. I’m sure that’s not something you would ever see a Pileated Woodpecker do. Downys are very active birds and work a branch with lithe acrobatic precision, often using their stiffened tail feathers for support and can even clamber around branches horizontally and upside down!

Downy Woodpeckers are not only nimble, they are also clever. They often travel along after the Pileated Woodpecker to glean any insects overlooked in these larger woodpeckers’ excavations. They also follow White-breasted Nuthatches to their seed caches and steal the already gathered and easily taken food. In the cold months they join mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and other small birds to maximize foraging opportunities.

If you enjoy feeding birds during the winter when bears are hibernating, you will most likely entice Downy Woodpeckers with suet including peanut butter or peanuts, and black oil sunflower seeds as they are common feeder birds. They are also as likely to be in neighborhoods and city parks as they are in wooded areas. Listen for their high-pitched pik note and animated, descending whinny call. Learn to recognize them in flight as they have an undulating flight pattern, with their wings folding against their bodies between quick wingbeats. In spring and summer, Downy Woodpeckers make a lot of noise drumming on trees and making their whinnying call. They are cavity-nesters so be sure to look at the holes in trees. You may be lucky enough to find a nesting pair with fledglings.

When watching small songbirds on a winter walk, take your time, as you are likely to be rewarded by a Downy Woodpecker showing up. Some researchers have speculated that the reason birds of different species flock together are for better detection of predators, thus increasing their chance of evading the predator. Some experiments have shown that chickadees are used as sentinels by Downy Woodpeckers. Other researchers surmise that mixed flocks simply increase feeding efficiency.

Learn to tell the difference between a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker, as they look so much alike and can be tricky to identify. Both species have similar black and white checkered feathers with a white stripe going down the center of the back and a boldly striped head. Males have a red patch on the back of the head. There are some key differences however, and once you learn what to look for it’s not so difficult.

First, let’s look at size. Hairy Woodpeckers are larger than Downys. Nine inches compared to the Downys six-and-a-half inches. But size can be deceiving, so take a good look at the bill. The Downy Woodpecker has a tiny bill that is about half the width of its head. Hairy Woodpeckers have a bill that is nearly as long as the width of its head. The outer tail feathers on a Hairy Woodpecker are unmarked, while the outer tail feathers on a Downy Woodpecker are spotted and Hairys drum much faster than Downys.

So, now you know a little about the Downy Woodpecker. This is such a rewarding bird to see anytime of the year. Downys stay in the Flathead Valley year-round, so you are sure to see them if you keep an eye out. Put suet out this winter so they visit your backyard!