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Downy woodpecker just keeps going and going

Male downy woodpecker on high alert

January 10, 2016

NATURE
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  http://www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com/

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