Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens


The Downy Woodpecker is our smallest woodpecker. The initial impression is a checkered black and white bird, with Pacific Northwest birds tending to have a darker wash overall. Smallish songbird-sized at first glance, the Downy has a classic woodpecker form, with a chisel-like bill, blocky head, wide shoulders, straight back, and is often seen perching vertically, propping its stiff tail feathers against the trunk of a tree. Often described as ‘dainty’.
The Downy is a resident bird of most of the US and Canada, with the exception of the northernmost reaches of the range and parts of the desert southwest US.


Adults are about 17 centimeters in length, weighing about 27 grams. Black above with a diagnostic white or whitish back (Among woodpeckers, this narrows it down to either a Hairy or Downy.) Underparts and flanks white, usually unmarked. A conspicuous nasal tuft at the base of the upper bill gives the Downy Woodpecker its name. Bill is small compared to head.

Adult Male: Red spot on rear of head.

Adult female: Similar to male, but lacking red spot, may have a slightly darker wing.

Juvenile: Red spot on fore- and top of head making a red cap.

Similar Species: Very similar to the Hairy Woodpecker and it can be hard to distinguish the two species in the field. Size is the most diagnostic, and the longer (greater than 1/2 the head) bill of the Hairy lacks the nasal tuft. The Downy averages about 17 centimeters, while the Hairy is about 23 centimeters long.

Behavior: Classic upright woodpecker posture, will often forage on twigs or weed stalks too small for most woodpeckers. Moves quickly in short hops and can move horizontally or downward more easily than other woodpecker species. Flight characteristic of woodpeckers- undulating with quick wingbeats alternating with folding wings against body.

Habitat: Open woodlands, comfortable in human-influenced areas such as orchards, backyards, urban parks, etc.


Interestingly, the only structural difference between males and females is tongue length, which allows the pair to forage in the same area using different methods on different tree species. The male will peck and the female will probe. An insect-eater, Downy Woodpeckers are often seen feeding on weed galls (such as goldenrod) and at backyard feeders eating sunflower seeds and suet. Cavity nesters, the pair excavates a nest in a tree or dead shrub and lines it only with wood chips. Cavities are 15- 30 centimeters deep, but the round entrance hole is only 2.5 - 4 centimeters wide.

Conservation Status:

The Downy Woodpecker is a species of Least Concern, having adapted well to human influence. While the Downy prefers open woodlands, it does well in young forests, such as those that have been recently cleared or thinned.
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