Species profile: Friendly little jackhammer, Downy Woodpecker
The Downy Woodpecker is a solitary mite in winter, a social drummer in spring, and a master carpenter year-round
Published: September 1, 2002
|Bamm! The little Downy Woodpecker hit the picture window hard and fell to the patio brick.|
We rushed outside to see if it was dead. It wasn't, thank goodness, and so we did what we always do with stunned birds that hit our windows. We placed it under a kitchen sieve until it recovered. I've kept records for 35 years of the birds that have been killed by collisions with my windows. Only about one out of 10 actually die. The other nine recover, often under a sieve, and are on their way. It appeared that this one would also survive.
"Let's call her Lady," my eight-year-old daughter, Jennie, announced.
"Okay, it certainly is a female, and a young one, too," I responded.
Under the sieve, Lady was given time to regain her composure, and in an hour or so, seemed to be ready to be on her way. Jennie gently placed her on the basswood tree where the suet feeder hangs, and where Downies often hitch up and down the tree trunk to approach the feeder. Much to our surprise, Lady didn't fly away. In fact, she stayed on the tree trunk for a few more hours, further recovering from her collision with the window, we surmised. But then she was gone.
A Favorite for Life
Close encounters with birds have been wonderful experiences for my children, as it was for me when I was their age. As a result, Downy Woodpeckers have remained a favorite of theirs, and mine, throughout our lives.
I'm most aware of them in mid-winter, when the woods are silent except for a solitary tap, tap, tap! Tap, tap, tap! It's not a loud tap, but it is distinct. It's a welcome sound amid the stillness of a snow-laden world.
Searching the dark skeletons of dormant oaks, I spot the little black-and-white mite. It's the smallest woodpecker in North America. On closer examination, I see that it is a male, sporting its males'-only red spot on the back of its head.
The tapping continues. The bird is all alone, because Downies are solitary in winter. It may follow chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches through the woods, but it doesn't associate with its own kind until spring.
More tapping. Interesting how it props itself with those stiff tail feathers while clinging to the bark. The tail relieves the toes of the bird's weight. This unique tripod allows the Downy to hitch up the tree trunk with ease, but it must back down in the same position, a more awkward motion. Its pincerlike feet are also unique. Most birds have three toes in the front of the foot and one in the back. But the woodpeckers have adapted to their needs with two toes in the front and two in the back. This gives them a better grasp on the bark. Like most woodpeckers, the Downy's outer hind toe is longer to keep the bird from swaying.
Tapping again. That bill, too, is special. It is chisel-shaped, not pointed like the bill of other birds. The Downy needs that flat, carpenter-like chisel tip for carving its nesting and roosting cavities. It also needs it to chip the wood away from insects buried in tree bark. Once it chisels close to a morsel, its amazing tongue does the rest of the work. Surprisingly long and sticky, twice the length of the bird's head, it has a horny tip of recurved barbs used to spear the borers.
The little jackhammer's bill also requires a very special skull behind it. Not only is it a stronger and thicker skull than other kinds of birds have, but it is also heavier. The added weight makes the hammer more effective.
The short, soft feathers around the nostrils, located at the base of the bill, are what give the bird its name.
It flies to another tree. Like other members of the woodpecker clan, the Downy has a distinct undulating flight that is most evident when it crosses open areas or as it swoops through woodlands. The dips are not as deep as those of the American Goldfinch, but as ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent said, "It gives the effect of a ship pitching slightly in a heavy sea. A few strokes carry the bird up to the crest of the wave - the wings clapping close to the sides of the body - then, at the crest, with the wings shut, the bird tilts slightly forward, and slides down into the next trough."
As spring approaches, and a few warm days in the North begin to melt the ice and snow, the Downies change their behavior toward each other. For one thing, their tapping becomes a quite different unbroken trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, lasting several seconds. The tapping is no longer simply an effort to get food, but a means of communication to other Downies that this is "my" territory. It is also the first attempt to attract a mate. Both sexes drum, sometimes on the wood or aluminum siding of houses, much to the frustration of homeowners. It is their contribution to the early-spring chorus of bird songs.
Though drumming is the Downy's song, the bird does have a repertoire of other noises. It utters a quiet tchick that I hear from the patio as it backs down the basswood to the suet feeder, and a whinny, which it uses as a location call, as well as a tick or tkhirrr, an alarm when a predator or person comes too close to its nesting site.
After the drumming unites the pair, the actual courtship begins with a curious dance or "weaving" action by both sexes. With their necks stretched out and bills pointed in line with their bodies, they pivot their heads and bodies from side to side, balancing on the tips of their tails. With their entire bodies elongated, they dance around both sides of a tree trunk. The dance ends when one chases the other from one branch to another, then more weaving, sometimes with wing and tail feathers spread. It's quite a show.
The result of all this activity is the bonding of the pair, which leads to the next phase, the excavation of a cavity in a living or dead tree as high as 50 feet above the ground. It requires a great deal of work by both birds, over a week or more, to carve a gourd-shaped cavity, into which the female lays four to five pure white eggs that both parents incubate for 12 days until they hatch.
The parents feed their ever hungrier youngsters a diet of insects delivered to the cavity, at times, as often as every two or three minutes. As the youngsters grow and sprout tail feathers that will support them, at about 14 days old, they begin to take turns sitting in the entrance of the cavity, with their heads out, begging for food. At age 21 to 24 days, they fly out of the cavity, never to return. The parents divide the brood and feed their individual charges for a couple more weeks. Soon, the baby Downies are on their own. I know that happens when I no longer see the adults feeding the youngsters suet at or near the feeder. Then I see youngsters at the feeders alone, no parents in sight. After that, it is not unusual to see an adult actually chase a youngster away from a suet feeder. Perhaps it is not an offspring, but maybe it is.
It is easy to distinguish juvenile males from their parents because the youngsters have a red crown from the base of their bills to the back of their heads. Juvenile females have no red tops. The young males keep their red crowns until the fall molt, when they get their first adult plumage, including a red spot at the back of the head, like their dads.
The Downy is our friendliest woodpecker. On the basswood tree at the edge of the patio, I frequently watch them back down the trunk to the suet feeder while I am sitting only a few feet away. When I fill feeders and clean birdbaths, a Downy will often be feeding, and will hardly move away, even when I am working close to it.
In fact, the Downies are constant companions while I am on the patio, grilling dinner or reading in my favorite lounge chair. They are always around, summer and winter. Nice birds.
Did You Know?
There are geographic variations of the Downy Woodpecker. The West Coast Downies are cream-colored where the East Coast downies are white. And, strangely, the look-alike larger Hairy Woodpeckers parallel these geographic variations.
Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are named for the kinds of nasal feathers they have at the upper base of their bills.
Downy Woodpeckers have a few predators, including screech-owls that nab them at night, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks that take them in daylight, wrens that battle them for their nesting cavities, and squirrels that enter the nesting cavities and destroy their eggs.
If a Downy Woodpecker survives its first year, it may live an average of 5 to 7 years in the wild. Banding records have produced evidence of some ancient Downies. One from Minnesota lived 12 years, 5 months.
Downy Woodpeckers rarely, if ever, nest in manmade birdhouses, yet many sources give dimensions for constructing Downy Woodpecker houses.
The nesting cavity in summer and the roosting cavity in winter are usually in different locations, but both are usually chiseled fresh each year. This work is done by both sexes.
Adults have been known to chip away at the wood walls in the nest cavities to form a cushioning layer for the eggs. Four to five glossy white eggs are typically laid, but as many as eight eggs have been recorded in a single clutch.
The tiny grubs inside goldenrod galls are an important part of a Downy Woodpecker's winter diet.
Downy Woodpeckers typically produce one brood of young a year in the North. More often two broods are laid in the South.
Attract Downy Woodpeckers to Your Yard
Downy Woodpeckers are the most common woodpeckers on the continent, familiar in backyards (except for those in the desert southwest) from the Deep South north to the Canadian Maritimes and west across the U.S. and Canada all the way to Alaska.
Favorite Habitats: Suburban backyards, woodlands of mixed growth, orchards, swamps, and river groves. Downies nest in deep tree cavities that they drill themselves, in living or dead wood, 3 to 50 feet above the ground.
Natural Diet: The 75 percent of their diet that is animal matter consists mostly of economically harmful insects, such as beetles, wood-boring larvae, caterpillars, weevils, and ants. The remaining 25 percent includes wild fruits, seeds, and nuts. Downies consume poison ivy.
Favorite Feeders: Because Downies are so fond of suet, the laminated cagelike suet holder is their favorite feeder. A tray or tube feeder containing hulled (cracked) sunflower seeds will also attract Downies.
Favorite Feeder Food: Suet, in any form, is the Downy's favorite feeder food, but the bird has also found that hulled (cracked) sunflower seeds are satisfying.
Favorite Backyard Features: A tree trunk or post on which a suet feeder hangs is a Downy's favorite backyard feature. The woodpeckers do not appear to use birdbaths.
|George H. Harrison writes from his home in Hubertus, Wisconsin.||