The Dainty Downy Woodpecker
By Noreen O’Brien, Purchasing, Marine Parts Express
The non-migratory, dainty Downy is the smallest of all North American woodpeckers. Its name, given by Mark Cates, the early American naturalist, refers to the generally soft and downy appearance of this woodpecker’s plumage. I refer to as “dainty” as a reminder that it is the smaller of the very similar, but much larger, “huge” Hairy Woodpecker.
The Downy, at less than 6-1/2 inches, is black above, with a white patch on the back, white spots on the wings and a black and white tail. The plain throat and underparts are buff colored or grayish white. The Downy’s head has white stripes above and below the dark-colored eyes, and males alone have a red patch at the back of the head.
Woodpecker tailbones are relatively large, as are the muscles attached to the bones, and the tail feathers are very stiff, allowing the bird to use the tail as a prop supporting its weight as it clings to the vertical surface of a tree trunk. At the end of relatively short legs are the zygodactyl feet, two toes in front and two behind, adding further advantage to clinging to a vertical surface. As the Downy hitches up a tree—seldom down a tree because that stiff tail is rather awkward for moving backward—it peers under bark crevices in search of insects, larvae and insect eggs.
The bird’s long, flexible tongue, enclosed in a muscular sheath, is attached to a long complex of bones called the hyoid, which has two horns that extend backward from the base of the tongue, curve around and over the back of the skull and wrap around the eye. The tip of the tongue has backward-directed barbs, used to detect and capture its prey. Between the barbs and the sticky substance coating the Downy’s tongue, the larvae don’t stand a chance at escaping.
Downies will also consume seeds like acorns and sunflower, as well as wild fruits like blueberries and poison ivy berries. They will also consume fat from a dead carcass, or raw beef suet (available at most grocery stores) hung out in a mesh bag or suet cage. Downies, like other woodpeckers, will also take peanut butter, especially crunchy, placed in a log feeder or spread onto pine cones.
Next time there is a Downy in your yard, watch it as it moves through the area. They scour tree trunks and branches in search of food. Note how the bird will drop down, not move horizontally, to the next tree it is scouring. It may occasionally work its way down a short distance of a trunk to a feeder. Try to watch it through binoculars. Note that both feet are lifted at the same time as it makes its descent in small “steps” as it loops its way down to the feeder. With careful observation, you may get to see that awesome tongue in action, as well.
Note, too, that Downies are often in the company of a loose flock of birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches. The Downy is often on the fringe, not exactly a part of the flock. It is thought that this loose flocking allows the birds “more eyes” to scan for predators, giving each individual bird a chance to concentrate on locating food items.
Should a perceived threat approach such a flock, try to remember to watch the response of the individual birds. Some will be vocal in their response and most will fly away, however, a Downy is more likely to remain stationary, sometimes for many minutes, say 15 or 20. If you witness these behaviors and the “frozen” stance of the woodpecker, scan the area and you may see a Sharp-Shinned or a Cooper’s hawk in the immediate vicinity of the birds, and this is the cause of their various reactions.
Although not particularly vocal during the winter months, Downies do tap year-round. Follow the sounds of the tapping and take the time to watch the bird once you spot it. Try to discern if the bird is tapping in search of food, or if it appears to be excavating a hole. As winter approaches, they will create a roosting hole to survive the cold nights. They seldom roost in a nest box, and almost never out in the elements, and the hole they excavate for roosting purposes will be rougher and shallower than the one it will create to raise a family.
For such a tiny bird, the dainty Downy is big on interesting ecology. Let me know what you witness as you follow these birds through the winter.
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November 11, 2011 / Noreen O'Brien / 0
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