Skip to main content

Downy woodpecker just keeps going and going

Male downy woodpecker on high alert

January 10, 2016

Jim McCormac

If you’re seeking a New Year’s resolution role model, consider the downy woodpecker.

Legendary ornithologist John James Audubon had this to say: “The downy woodpecker .  .  . is perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry or vivacity.”

These traits are admirable in any organism. Having seen thousands of downy woodpeckers through the years, I will second Audubon’s effusive praise. The handsome little birds are almost always hard at work.

There are just two lapses in the workaholic woodpeckers’ toiling: when they sleep at night; and when a bird-eating raptor rudely interrupts their routine. I made the accompanying photo just after a small falcon known as a merlin entered the area. The woodpecker skittered to the side of the trunk opposite the raptor and froze stiff until the predator departed.

If one stumbled upon downy woodpeckers during their courting, one might think the birds are clownish. An amorous pair hops stiffly about, feathers rigidly ruffled, peeking at one another from behind limbs and making aggressive lunges. They might then engage in the “butterfly flight,” which must be seen to be believed. Usually tree-bound, the birds flutter through forest gaps, wings held high over their bodies and flapping with shallow delicate strokes. The gauzy flight display suggests aerial synchronized swimming.

Courtship antics lead to mating and, ultimately, the production of little woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers excavate a small nest cavity, typically in a dead snag well off the ground. The female lays up to eight eggs, which she incubates for about 12 days. Eighteen days after hatching, the young depart the nest.

Old nestholes are used by many other cavity-dwellers, including chickadees, titmice and house wrens.

The downy woodpecker’s range stretches throughout the United States and Canada, from the wildest Alaskan forests to urban Columbus. It is the most common and successful woodpecker in North America, with a population estimated at 14 million birds.

Almost all who feed birds are familiar with the downy woodpecker. The industrious bird is quick to seize on an easy food source. It favors suet but will take seeds of all types.

Most of the downy’s livelihood, however, comes from drilling into woody trunks and limbs for beetle larvae and other succulent entomological fare.

A peculiar dietary quirk is a fondness for goldenrod gall fly larvae. The larvae are embedded in golf ball-like growths on goldenrod stems, and the woodpeckers expend considerable effort extracting the juicy grubs.

Observers can be confused by a similar species, the hairy woodpecker. The hairy is larger and stouter than the downy — think Arnold Schwarzenegger versus Richard Simmons. It also has a much more massive bill and lacks black dots on the white outer tail feathers. Like the downy, the male hairy woodpecker has a crimson splotch on the back of the head.

Tack some suet to a tree and welcome the hardest-working woodpecker in the grove into your yard.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…