Downy woodpecker: The daintiest of the woodpeckers!

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Downies are the smallest woodpeckers in North America. At six inches, they are just a bit bigger than chickadees. This photo shows a female downy woodpecker) Photo by DON BARTLING

The smallest of the woodpeckers, downies are a familiar friend in backyards throughout North Idaho. They seem delicate even as they chisel out cavities in tree trunks, one chunk at a time. Downy woodpeckers eat a variety of foods including seeds, fruits and insects, and they visit suet feeders throughout the year.

Action at the bird feeders was continuous. Juncos had arrived, scattered across the backyard, eating spilled seeds and fighting for position on the suet feeder. Red breasted nuthatches and chickadees were hungrily feeding on black oil sunflower seeds. Two mourning doves had staked out a prime location under the bird feeders.

A single downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) was shuttling back and forth between trees and feeders. The downy would take a bite, scoot 20 feet to the safety of the tree branch, eat the sunflower and immediately head back for more.

Although there was just one woodpecker, seeing her at the feeder was no fluke. Downies are widespread and common. Their range includes all of the continental United States except for the extremely arid Southwest and north of the tree line in Alaska.

The downy’s head features black and white stripes punctuated by a shortish black bill and dark eyes, They have feather tufts just above the bill that protect their eyes and nasal passages from wood chips as the birds peck away at trees. Males have distinctive red patches on their napes. They are also tolerant of humans.

As the name makes clear, woodpeckers need wood. Their diet consists mostly of insects and other tiny animals. About a quarter of their diet consists of nuts, berries and seeds, especially in winter when insects are scarce. Downies use their sturdy bills to open small crevices in trees to get at insects in their tunnels under the bark. They use their long, sticky tongues to reach their prey.

Downies are at least seasonally monogamous. The pair works together drilling nest sites, and the cooperation continues through the brooding and feeding of chicks. Nests typically contain four to six eggs laid on consecutive days. The chicks all hatch at once 12 days later. They fledge in a bit more than two weeks, although they will rely on their parents for food for weeks.

Downy woodpeckers look remarkably like hairy woodpeckers. Although downies are much smaller, the overall color pattern is identical. At a distance, size can be hard to judge. Birders have developed a handy field identification trick. The hairy woodpecker’s bill is long, extending forward about the same distance from the base of the bill to the back of the head. The downy’s only goes about one-third of the way back. Other differences exist, but the bill length is the easiest identification method.

As I watched the downy in my backyard probe away at the feeder, to me, nothing is more impressive in the avian world than the singular life of a living bird.

Enjoy Boundary County and all it wildlife.

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