Our Wild Neighbors

Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens

A noisy guest in Canada’s leafy trees

Image of a Downy Woodpecker, mounted perched on the trunk of a tree, seen from the side with its head to the right.

Description of the animal

  • Small black-and-white woodpecker.
  • Size: between 14 and 17 centimetres.
  • White flanks and breast.
  • Black back with a wide white band from its shoulders to its rump.
  • Black and white checks on the wings.
  • Head striped in black and white.
  • Red nape of the neck on the male but not the female.
  • Characteristics shared with other woodpeckers: straight bill, straight rigid tail, and short legs with four toes, two pointing frontwards and two backwards.
  • Tongue that is very long, hairy, flexible, and sticky.

Habitat and needs

  • Eats mainly insects and larvae. The Woodpecker uses its hearing to locate them in tree branches. Females tend to hunt on tree trunks, and males on branches. About a quarter of the Downy Woodpecker’s diet is composed of plant matter: berries, acorns, seeds, and grains. This bird has been known to drink at hummingbird feeders.
  • Frequents various wooded areas, including parks and yards in urban areas. It prefers broad-leaved trees like poplar, birch, and ash.
  • Is the most agile woodpecker. The Downy Woodpecker climbs by propping itself on its stiff tail feathers, its body glued to the tree. It advances one step at a time while bobbing its head. Its skill at descending in a spiral motion and darting sideways is impressive.
  • Marks its territory and attracts females by drumming with its bill on hollow trees. If there are no hollow trees, the Downy Woodpecker pecks on other resonating surfaces like tin roofs, eaves troughs, or electric poles.
  • For about 15 days, drills a hole in a tree with great pecking movements. This hole will shelter the nest and clutch of eggs. A diameter as small as 10 centimetres is sufficient. The Downy Woodpecker prefers trees that are already sick or damaged.

Relationship

  • The Downy Woodpecker contributes to the good health of forests: it destroys the larvae of harmful insects.
  • It is a good indicator of the biodiversity of forests because its holes attract other birds like hummingbirds and black-capped chickadees.
  • If it makes holes in the wooden walls of buildings, it does so because they are infested with insects.

Living with them

  • To attract the Downy Woodpecker:
  • Don’t spray trees with insecticides.
  • Hang suet and seeds. However, food must be removed before it becomes rancid; if the Downy Woodpecker were to eat bad food, its head feathers would fall out.
  • Do not cut down hollow trees or remove dead branches: these are sites where a Downy Woodpecker might make its nest.
  • To keep a Woodpecker from damaging tin surfaces, protect them with screening during the bird’s mating season.

Participating cities where this animal has been seen