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A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Downy Woodpecker
Picoides pubescens [Northern Downy Woodpecker]  

Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1939: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 52-68]

The downy woodpecker *** inhabits nearly the whole of the wooded parts of North America. It is absent or rare on the arid deserts and less common in the densely forested regions than some of the larger woodpeckers; its favorite country is the open woodland that covers a large part of the United States.

When civilized man invaded their territory, the downy woodpecker *** did not retreat before his advance but accepted as a home the orchards and shade trees with which man replaced the forest. At the present time it builds its nest sometimes within sight from our windows and often in the parks of our large cities. It is one of the best known of our permanent residents.

The ornithologists of a century ago show unanimity in their characterization of the bird. Audubon (1842) remarks that it "is perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity"; Wilson (1832) says that "the principal characteristics of this little bird are diligence, familiarity, perseverance" and speaks of a pair of the birds working at their nest "with the most indefatigable diligence"; and Nuttall (1832) characteristically shares Wilson's opinion even to the extent of employing his exact words, "indefatigable diligence," in his own account of the building of the nest. Nearly a hundred years later Forbush (1927), when near the end of his long life, put his seal of approval upon this sentiment, expressed long ago, by summarizing the downy as a "model of patient industry and perseverance."

Backed by these authorities we may regard the downy woodpecker as a bird with a stable and well-balanced nature, a bird which, unconcerned by the rush and traffic "of these most brisk and giddy-paced times," still perseveres in its "indefatigable diligence."

Spring and Courtship.--As spring advances, the downy woodpecker seems to wake up; it attracts our notice by its more frequent notes and increased activity. During the cold months of the year the bird has been comparatively silent, although even in the depth of winter we may occasionally hear its single chip and even the long whinny, but in April, for so sedate a bird, it becomes a lively personality; it moves about quickly--sometimes with lightninglike agility--and takes a voluble interest in the members of its own species.

Frances H. Allen, in his notes, gives the two following graphic accounts of the initial stage of the bird's courtship: "April 10, 1904. West Roxbury, Mass. I found two downy woodpeckers courting--at least, I suppose that was what they were up to. They acted like mating flickers, chasing each other about from tree to tree, keeping almost constantly on the move and only pausing now and then to execute a sort of dance, spreading their wings and tails. From time to time I heard from them a long call resembling the flicker's whick, whick whick whick, etc., but higher pitched than the flicker's and, of course, not so loud. Less often I heard another note--a softer, slighter, more hurried call, similar in quality. I did not make out whether these two calls were made by different sexes, nor did I positively make out that the birds were a pair, they kept in such constant motion. At least once one lit crosswise of a twig. At last one flew off, and then the familiar and characteristic long call of a downy sounded from another direction, and the remaining bird flew over to the third bird, which was clinging to the trunk of an elm. Then these two stayed in each other's company but did not conduct so elaborate a dance as the first couple.

"All this time a fourth bird had been drumming on a tree not far away. I went up to the place and timed the drum calls, finding each roll to last about two seconds. I could not count the taps, but thought they numbered eight or ten to each roll. While I watched this bird, another downy came along, sounding the flickerlike call, but rather faintly, and the drummer flew to join her. They flew off together. I believe it is only the male that drums, and I think it probable that the bird that answered the drummer was the one that had taken part in the dance before described, for that bird when she left her partner had flown off in this direction.

"April 8, 1917. West Roxbury. Watched a pair courting this morning for several minutes. Both sexes had a curious 'weaving' action, moving the head and whole body from side to side on the tip of the tail as a pivot with the neck stretched out and bill pointed on a line with the body, and the whole body elongated. They did this both when clinging to the side of a trunk and when on a horizontal or slanting branch. They were silent but very active, flitting one after the other from branch to branch and tree to tree, but making only short flights. The waving, or 'weaving,' motion of the head was rather rapid, perhaps two waves, that is from left to right and back again, in about a second--but this is stated from general impressions and memory only. These birds did not spread the wings and tail as did the courting pair observed on April 10, 1904, and, as stated, they uttered no note."

My notes refer to a bit of courtship observed during the actual breeding season, May 11, 1911, in a wooded swamp in Lexington, Mass., where the species used to nest every year. The female bird was perched motionless along a horizontal limb of a tree, and the male was poised in the air just behind and a little above her. He was hovering. His wings were more than half spread, I should say, and waving slowly up and down, a maneuver which displayed finely the rows of white spots on the flight feathers and coverts.

William Brewster (1936), in his Concord journal under date of May 5, 1905, notes another form of courtship. He says: "At 8 a.m. saw a pair of Downy Woodpeckers in young oaks behind Ball's Hill, behaving very strangely. They kept flying from tree to tree, flapping their wings slowly and feebly like butterflies, sometimes moving on a level plane, sometimes in long loops, occasionally sailing from tree to tree in a long deep loop. Their wings had a strange fin-like appearance due, probably, to the way they were held or flexed. They both uttered a low, harsh, chattering cry, almost incessantly. No doubt this was a love performance, but they were male and female and both 'showed off' in the same way."

Lewis O. Shelley (1932), who, at East Westmoreland, N.H., has had an extensive experience with banded birds throughout the year, describes the courtship thus:

Courtship activities begin rather early with the male's tattooing commencing in the warm days of March. I believe the most active mating display is given by a new male that desires a mate, not by a male mated the previous year whose mate is still living. The latter male seems to give a protective display to its rival, seemingly just enough to hold his mate's trust.

In the spring of 1931, father and son. . .fought for and sought the favor of the young female. . .the son finally winning after days of courtship in our yard and vicinity. . . . Courting lasted for upwards of two weeks, or perhaps longer, before the female made her choice. Of the two rivals the son finally was accepted, the older male shortly disappearing. . . . The courtship display of these three birds was the same as I have observed with other mating Downy Woodpeckers elsewhere in past seasons. At my station the mating activities began when the birds first met and was continued more or less regularly thereafter. The female is usually rather quiet, sometimes giving a 'week, week, week, week,' or again a squeaking note. The male gives forth a loud 'wick, wick, wick, wick, wick, wick,' sometimes with a rolling 'k-k-k-k-k' at the end. Very little drumming on resonant objects is done by the male, once the female is located, and in this case almost none was done except when one male was out of sight and hearing of the female and the other courting bird. To the casual observer, the chasing of the female by the male to a tree, and from tree to tree, in a seemingly idle manner (often, but not always, by both males) is in reality a part of the mating maneuvers.

When it happens that both males are in pursuit, the activities take on an added impetus. I have a number of times seen one male dash headlong across a fifty-yard opening to where the other two birds were, loudly uttering his cry, and, when alighting, dash at his adversary, the female squeaking intermittently, and swinging her body from side to side. The display also consists of spread wings nervously fluttered; raising and lowering of the scarlet patch, mad dashes from one tree to another at the fleeing female, who dodges to the opposite side of the tree as the pursuing bird alights; loud calls at intervals when he stops his mad hopping up the limbs and smaller branches. This activity may last from five to thirty minutes, from the large elm in our yard, where the birds feed, to a larger area either south or east of the house. When two birds are alone together, it is common to find them perching near together and motionless for considerable periods of time, but let the second male appear and the first male will drive the female from the tree and the round is begun again. When two males come face to face in a headlong rush, wings spread, crest raised, and beak open in a challenging attitude, it is mostly sham, for they soon quiet down unless one advances up the tree toward the female clinging immovable above.

There is a period when the male is very active in his rushing of the female--I suppose to make sure of his desire, a mate--but this phase of courtship plays no part in the act of copulation, which I have seen enacted early in the morning, a quiet, matter-of-fact performance.

The first and last paragraphs of this quotation are taken from Mr. Shelley's manuscript notes.

Nesting.--The downy woodpecker nests in a cavity that the birds themselves drill in a branch or stub 8 feet (rarely less) to 50 feet (rarely more) above the ground, generally in dead or dying wood, sometimes in a solid branch. The entrance, one and a quarter inches in diameter, is just large enough to admit the bird's body, and is perfectly circular unless some bits of soft wood chip off. The cavity is roughly gourd-shaped, turning downward and widening soon after penetrating the wood, and extends to a depth varying normally from eight to twelve inches. Generally a few chips are left in the bottom of the cavity.

Lewis O. Shelley says that according to his experience "the female selects the nest site on her winter, or year-round, territory." He speaks of a female that in the fall "partly dug out a cavity, supposedly for her winter quarters, but the following summer I found a brood of young of this same bird occupying the nest."

Writers are almost unanimously of the opinion that both birds of the pair excavate the nest, but Shelley states: "Of a number of nests observed, I have never known the male downy to assist in excavating. He often comes near when the female is working, but this seems to be an understood signal for her to cease work and go off in his company."

A. Dawes DuBois, in a letter to Mr. Bent, describes the behavior of a pair working jointly on a nest in Ithaca, N.Y., about 15 feet up in an old stub. He says: "These birds were working the lower depths. The partners worked alternately. First the female lighted on the stub and disappeared within the cavity. Immediately she thrust out her head, and, with a quick shake, disposed of a billful of chips. She repeated this a number of times. She was throwing out the loose chips from the bottom of the cavity. Soon she began to chisel, remaining inside where we could not see her. After she had been working for five or six minutes, her mate flew to the stub and uttered a chirp, whereupon the female came out and flew away.

"The male went in to continue the work by a somewhat different method. He was never entirely lost to view--his tail was always visible--and he backed out of the hole to dispose of the chips. He ruffled his feathers considerably in squirming out backward, as his body was a snug fit in the entrance hole. He threw out a quantity of loose chips in this manner and then began chiseling, his tail meanwhile protruding from the doorway. He worked for 22 minutes; then his mate came back.

"She went inside and came out with her mouth quite full of chips; but instead of tossing the chips on the ground, she flew off with them to another tree. She stayed away for several minutes, then returned and went to work in her accustomed way, staying within the cavity, and thrusting only her head outside. When she had worked about 15 minutes the male came again to the entrance. She put her head out of the doorway; they rubbed their bills together and chirped a few remarks. The female then flew away and the male took up the task again."

Audubon (1842) says: "About the middle of April it begins to form its nest, shewing little care as to the kind of tree it selects for the purpose, although it generally chooses a sound one, sometimes, however, taking one that is partially decayed. The pair work together for several days before the hole is completed, sometimes perhaps a whole week, as they dig it to a depth of a foot or sixteen inches. the direction is sometimes perpendicularly downwards from the commencement, sometimes transverse to the tree for four or five inches, and then longitudinal. The hole is rendered smooth and conveniently large throughout, the entrance being perfectly round, and just large enough to admit one bird at a time."

A. Dawes DuBois writes that the male bird of a pair was caught in a nest 6 feet from the ground, evidently incubating the six eggs well advanced in development. This observation is in accord with the general belief that the male takes his share in incubation.

Mrs. Alice Hall Walter (1912) states that: "in the North, only one brood is raised during a season; but it is not uncommon in the South for one brood to be raised in May and a second in August."

Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The northern downy woodpecker lays ordinarily four or five eggs, though sets of three or six are not rare, and as many as seven or even eight eggs have been found in a nest. The eggs are pure white, either dull white or more or less glossy, and they vary in shape from ovate to rounded-ovate. The measurements of 55 eggs average 19.35 by 15.05 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.35 by 16.26, 17.78 by 14.73, and 18.80 by 13.97 millimeters.]

Young.--The incubation period of the downy woodpecker is 12 days, according to Frank L. Burns (1915) and Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1928).

Whether in their earliest days the young birds, hidden in the depths of their dark chamber, are fed by regurgitation has not been determined, but very soon after they leave the egg food is brought directly to them. Dr. Allen says: "Certainly by the time the young are four or five days old entire insects are bought in the parents' bills and given to the young; I have photographic proof of this."

Craig S. Thoms (1927), in a study of the nesting habits in South Dakota, says: "On June 9 the young were beginning to come up to the door of their excavation to receive food. Presumably the largest and strongest sticks his head clear out. When he fed he subsided and the next came up, but not quite so far. He in his turn subsided and the parent entered to feed the weaker ones still farther down. . . .

"On June 12 the last of the young left the nest, which upon being measured was found to be 10 inches deep."

A. Dawes DuBois tells of the flight of the young birds from the nest: "The young chattered most of the time during the last two days of nest life. One at a time they looked out a great deal at the strange outer world. They left the nest on June 11. The last two, a male and a female, left during the afternoon, each after being fed at the entrance and seeing the parent fly away. The young male flew from the nest hole straight to a tree 60 feet away. His sister quickly followed, lighting on the trunk of the same tree and following her parent up the bole in the hitching manner of their kind as though she had been practicing this vertical locomotion all her life."

Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Young downy woodpeckers are hatched naked and blind, but the juvenal plumage is acquired before theyoung leave the nest. In this first plumage, the young male is much like the adult male, except that the red nuchal patch is lacking; the forehead is black, spotted with white, but the crown and occiput are more or less marked with various shades of red, pinkish, or yellowish, as well as spotted with white; the black portions of the plumage are duller than in the adult; the sides of the breast are streaked and the flanks obscurely spotted with dusky; the white areas, underparts, and white spots elsewhere, as well as the rectrices, are tinged with yellowish.

The young female is like the young male, except that there is no red on the head, and the crown is clear black, or black spotted with white. L. L. Snyder (1923) has shown that young males sometimes have only white markings on a black crown and that young females sometimes have reddish, pinkish, or yellowish markings on the crown.

The juvenal plumage is worn but a short time, for a complete molt, beginning in September or earlier, produces a first winter plumage which is practically adult. Adults have a complete annual molt from July to September. Both adults and young show a tinge of yellowish in the white areas in fresh fall plumage, which gradually fades away.]

Food.--F. E. L. Beal (1911) in an examination of the contents of 723 stomachs of the downy woodpecker found that 76.05 percent was animal matter, the remaining 23.95 percent vegetable matter. The following quotations are from his exhaustive report.

Beetles taken collectively amount to 21.55 percent, and are the largest item of the food. Of these, a little less than 14 percent are wood-boring larvae. . . . They were found in 289 stomachs, or about 40 percent of all, and 10 contained no other food. This is only about half the amount found in the stomachs of the hairy woodpecker, and shows that the downy pecks wood much less than the hairy. These larvae are eaten at all times of the year, though the most are taken in the cooler months. . . . The economic value of the destruction of these larvae is very great.

Weevils amount to a little more than 3 percent but appear to be a rather favorite food, as they were found in 107 stomachs. . . .

Ants are eaten by the downy to the extent of 21.36 percent of its diet, and are taken more regularly than any other element of the food. . . .

Caterpillars appear to be a very acceptable food for the downy woodpecker, as they constitute 16.50 percent of the yearly diet. . . .

Fruit was eaten to the extent of 5.85 percent of the whole food. Most of it is useless wild varieties. . . .

The charge sometimes made that the downy injures trees by eating the inner bark is disproved. It eats cambium rarely and in small quantities.

Beal gives a list of 20 seeds and fruits found in the downy's food. Summarizing his findings, he says: "The foregoing discussion of the food of the downy woodpecker shows it to be one of our most useful species. The only complaint against the bird is on the score of disseminating the poisonous species of Rhus. However, it is fortunate that the bird can live on this food when it is difficult to procure anything else. The insect food selected by the downy is almost all of species economically harmful."

Forbush (1927) lays stress on the usefulness of the downy to man; he says that it "searches out the pine weevil which kills the topmost shoot of the young white pine and so causes a crook in the trunk of the tree, unfitting it for the lumber market."

Mrs. Alice Hall Walter (1912) shows how well the downy is equipped to secure its food. She says that the feet, two toes in front and two behind, "serve to clamp the bird to the tree." She continues:

Additional support is furnished by the stiff, sharply pointed tail-feathers, that act as a brace when the bird delivers heavy blows with its beak. Effective as this tool is for the work of hammer, wedge, drill and pick-axe, it could not obtain the deeply hidden grubs known as "borers," from their tortuous, tunneled grooves, without the aid of the long, slender, extensile tongue. In the case of the Hairy and Downy, as well as some others of the family, this remarkable tool is provided with barbs, converting it into a spear, which may be hurled one inch, two inches, or even more, beyond the tip of the beak.

A. Dawes DuBois says in his notes: "I have seen a downy woodpecker industriously applying the percussion test to the dried stalks of the previous summer's horse weeds, which grow to prodigious size in the creek bottoms near Springfield, Illinois. He went up each stalk, tapping it lightly, and frequently stopping to pierce the shell and extract a worm from the pith. I found that the weed stems he had visited were punctured and splintered in numerous places."

The following note by Elliott R. Tibbets (1911) shows how agile the downy is on the wing. He was watching some birds at a feeding shelf. "I was told," he says, "to throw a cracked nut into the air and see what followed--I did so, and, to my surprise, the Downy darted after it, not allowing it to touch the ground, and then returned to the evergreen, where he proceeded to pick the kernel from the hard shell."

Henry D. Minot (1877) also mentions that they "catch insects on the wing."

Behavior.--The downy woodpecker sits very still as it digs out a grub from under the bark of a tree, or from the wood under the bark, or as it dislodges a bit of bark in its hunt for a cocoon or a bundle of insects' eggs. We hear the gentle taps of its bill, and when our eyes, led by the sound, catch sight of the bird, perched on a branch or the trunk of a tree, we understand why it has been called industrious. It is concentrated on its work; it works patiently, seriously, like a carpenter working earnestly with his chisel, spending a full minute, sometimes more, to secure a bit of food.

As it sits there quietly, working painstakingly at the bark, it gives the impression of a rather sedentary bird, deliberate and staid, but when it begins to move about--taking short flights among the branches--alighting on little swaying twigs and flitting off again--we see it in another mood. It is lively now; all deliberateness is gone. It hops upward over the branches with quick jerky hops, rearing back a little after each one; it may descend a little way by backward hitches; it winds about the smaller branches peering at the right side, the left side, and around at the back; it flits to a twig no thicker than a pencil for the space of a single peck, and then it is off with the speed of an arrow, weaving and undulating through a maze of branchlets, cutting the air audibly with its wings.

We can watch the downy woodpecker best in winter when the trees and shrubs are bare. But even in such an exposed situation as a leafless tree, we do not find it a conspicuous bird--one hop and it is hidden behind a branch, seeming almost to glide out of our sight. At the slightest alarm it disappears; it uses a branch as a shield--slipping behind it, safe from observation or attack.

The bird is at home also in shrubbery, moving easily among the smaller branches, hitching along their slender length, picking at the bark, and leaping from one branch to another with the aid of a flip of the wings. It sits crosswise on a perch scarcely bigger than a twig, leaning forward a little, bill outstretched, suggesting in position and outline a tiny kingfisher.

Here, at close range, on a level with our eyes, we realize how rapid the bird's motions are. The beak strikes and draws back--the two movements in a single flash. The head turns to one side, to the other side, bringing first one dark shining eye, then the other, to bear on the bark; we see the head in the two positions, although we get only a hint of the motion between.

Thus the day's work goes on, until the downy, replete with the results of its industry, rests motionless for a while on a high, sunny branch, taking its ease.

The downy woodpecker, like most of its family, has an undulating flight when flying any considerable distance. The undulations are not deep, as in the plunging flight of a goldfinch; it gives rather the effect of a ship pitching slightly in a head 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 wings shut, the bird tilts slightly forward, and slides down into the next trough.

Besides employing its strong beak and the powerful muscles of its neck to secure food and dig out a cavity for its nest, the downy woodpecker makes use of them to beat a loud tattoo on the branch of a tree or some other resonant object. This habit is oftenest noticed in spring, when it appears to form a part of courtship or a prelude to it, but Lewis O. Shelley says in his notes that "on February 3, 1934, a male downy commenced its drumming on a dead elm branch near the house. A few hours earlier the temperature had been 5o below zero. On the 6th, 8th, and 9th he was tattooing at the usual hour, about 8 a.m. On the 8th the temperature registered zero, and on the 9th 18o below zero!"

Dr. Charles W. Townsend, in his Ipswich manuscript notes, under date of March 16, 1930, speaks of "a male bird hammering a rat-at-at-too on the apex of a telephone pole for three seconds. He then paused, hunching up a little and looking about for from five to twelve seconds, before resuming the hammering. He made a small round dent in the pole, but there were no chips."

A. Dawes DuBois tells in his notes the following anecdote: "One April day I watched this avian drummer as he entertained himself by beating on the wooden insulator-pins of an unused cross-arm on a telegraph pole. From each pin he rang out a different tone--loud, clear, and high-pitched. It was evident that this pleased him, for he hopped from one pin to another to repeat the variations."

I have found in the books no mention of drumming by the female downy, but at the end of the extract from William Brewster's notes, quoted under "Courtship," in which he describes a mutual display by a pair of birds, he adds: "Both sexes drum, also."

William Brewster (1876b) points out the difference between the tattoo of the downy woodpecker and that of the hairy woodpecker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker. He says: "P. pubescens has a long unbroken roll, P. villosus a shorter and louder one with a greater interval between each stroke, while S. varius commencing with a short roll ends very emphatically with five or six distinct disconnected taps."

R. Owen Merriam (1920) gives, from Hamilton, Canada, an instance of "snow bathing." He says:

This morning a female Downy Woodpecker that I was watching flew to a horizontal branch and proceeded vigorously to bathe in the loose snow lying there. Like a Robin in a puddle, Mrs. Downy ducked her head, ruffled her feathers, and fluttered her wings, throwing some of the snow over her back and scattering the rest to the winds. As all the snow fell off one part of the branch, she moved along to another, until she had cleared a place about two feet long. Two forks held more snow than the straight limb, and apparently Mrs. Downy enjoyed herself immensely when she came to them.

Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1928) in his admirable "Downy Woodpecker's Story," published in the School Department of Bird-Lore, says, letting the bird tell its own story: "When cold weather sets in, . . .I begin drilling roosting-holes where I can spend the nights. I usually have to drill quite a number for they seem to be quite popular with other birds like the Chickadees and Nuthatches, and sometimes when I get ready to retire I find my hole occupied by a flying squirrel or a whole family of deer mice, and it is easier to drill a new hole than to drive them out. One winter I got tired of drilling holes and every night retired to a bird-house and perched on an old Wren's nest that was in it."

Many ornithologists, even as long ago as the time of Wilson and Nuttall, have believed that the rows of small holes, such as we commonly see in the bark of our orchard trees, are drilled by the downy woodpecker. These little holes, about three-eighths of an inch across, circular when old, but oval when fresh, are arranged in fairly regular rows parallel to the ground, and sometimes in tiers, when they have the appearance of a waffle. In settled regions they are found oftenest in the trunks of the larger branches of trees belonging to the rose family--most commonly of all in apple trees. The holes may be within 3 feet of the ground or as high as 20 feet or more above it, depending on the height of the tree. Oftentimes they are very close together; I have counted as many as six of them in a space of an inch and a half. The question has arisen whether the downy woodpecker ever makes these holes.

We know now, what the older ornithologists did not know, that it is a regular habit of the yellow-bellied sapsucker to drill such holes, but there are plenty of statements in the ornithological literature today ascribing the work to the downy woodpecker as well.

Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1932) gives an able summary of the literature on this question and, after carefully weighing the evidence, comes "to the conclusion that these well known and characteristic circles of holes are made by true sapsuckers and not by downy or hairy woodpeckers."

He throws a good deal of doubt on some seemingly definite observations from correspondents quoted by Forbush in his "Birds of Massachusetts," when he says that "many leave one in considerable uncertainty as to whether the correspondents actually saw the downy woodpecker making the rings of holes, or merely tapping in the same region, or drinking the sap, or eating cambrium from holes whose origin was not ascertained. It may be that some of the correspondents were unable to distinguish the true species of woodpecker."

Dr. Townsend cites several observations, two of which are quoted below. If the first of these had not been correctly interpreted, and if the other had not been seen in its entirety, they might have led to error. He says:

There is one observation, however, which should be quoted here, as it is of considerable interest in this discussion, an observation made by a capable observer with great care. Forbush says *** : "The first trustworthy evidence, however, that I obtained regarding the tapping of trees for sap by the Downy Woodpecker was in 1899, when my assistant, the late Charles E. Bailey, on April 6 watched one for several hours. His report reads: 'At 12:30 I found a Downy Woodpecker, and watched him till 2:45; he took three larvae from a maple stub, just under the bark. He next tapped two small swamp maples, four and six feet from the ground, and spent most of the time taking sap. He tapped the tree by picking it a few times very lightly; it looked like a slight cut, slanting a little. The bird would sit and peck the sap out of the lower part of the cut. The cut was so small the sap did not collect very fast. The bird would go and sit for a long time in a large tree and not move, then it would come back and take more sap. It did this three times while I was watching it. It did not care to take any food but sap.'. . . Mr. Bailey cut off and brought me the limb, the bark of which was perforated by the bird. . . . The perforations passed through the bark to the wood, but did not enter it and they do not in the least resemble in shape those made by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker." Here is just what we should expect in a woodpecker not specialized as a sapsucker. . . .

The next record is of considerable significance in this discussion, and had I seen only the latter half of the drama, my conclusions might have been different. In the Wenham swamp on May 11, 1906, my notes state that Glover M. Allen and I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drilling holes in a white pine. His movements were slow and he paid little attention to us standing below him at the foot of the tree. When he departed, a female Downy Woodpecker visited the holes.

Speaking of his own observations, Dr. Townsend says: "I may state that, although I have long watched Downy Woodpeckers gleaning insects on and in the bark and wood of trees at all seasons of the year, I have never seen them dig circles of holes in the bark. . . . I have never found fresh rings of holes except during the time of the sapsucker migrations."

Voice.--The downy woodpecker is by no means a noisy bird; compared to the red-headed woodpecker, with its loud rattling calls, or to the shouting, boisterous flicker, it is quiet and demure. Nevertheless, we cannot be for long near one of these little birds, hidden high among leafy branches, before we learn of its presence. Within a few minutes, long before we catch sight of it, we are almost certain to hear its voice.

Its call note is a single abrupt syllable, like tchick. Although this note is of sufficient volume to carry a considerable distance, it is not a loud note even when heard at short range. As in the case of many bird notes, it is recognizable from the voice of any other bird hereabouts once we have become familiar with it, yet it is not easy to say how it differs from numerous other calls that might be suggested by the same letters. I believe one characteristic of the note that helps us distinguish it is its shortness--it is over almost as soon as begun, like a dot in the telegraph code. But in spite of being sharp, it is a modest little sound; it does not ring through the woods like the wild call of the hairy woodpecker.

Another note is a long whinny made up of a dozen or more tchicks. These increase in rapidity soon after the beginning of the series, and the pitch drops rather sharply. Near the close, the volume diminishes, and the whinny ends with a "dying fall."

Elizabeth Sampson (1934) brings this note very clearly to our mind when she speaks of it as "a handful of his staccato notes. . .flung out in a rapid run, gaining speed as they came, till they almost tumbled over each other at the end."

This whinny is also given, although not often, without any fall in pitch.

The downy woodpecker has other notes in its vocabulary, some of which are described under courtship, but, compared to the two noted above, they are rarely heard. It may be that some of these notes are only modifications of the call notes, uttered with a slightly changed inflection. One, a single short note, has a distinct vocal quality.

Of the young birds in the nest, Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1928) says that they "keep up an incessant chippering, especially when they get the least bit hungry, and at times they sound almost like a beehive, from the ground."

After the young birds have left the nest, I have often heard them give a series of tchicks similar to the whinny of the adults, but in a weaker voice and all on the same pitch. However, this note evidently varies, for Francis H. Allen says in his notes that the young have also a rattle resembling the kingfisher rattle of D. villosus, but fainter and falling in pitch like the similar note of the adult.

Field marks.--The downy, the smallest of our woodpeckers, maybe separated at once from any other woodpecker, except the hairy, by the broad white stripe down the back.

The hairy is half again as large as the downy, but in situations where comparative size counts little, the downy may be recognized by its short bill--no longer than its head. The hairy's bill is longer even in proportion to the size of the bird.

Enemies.--Lewis O. Shelley, who as a bird bander has handled many downy woodpeckers, says in his notes: "I find this species practically free from parasites, but I have found among the feathers the two bird flies, Ornithoica confluenta and Ornithomyia anchineuria."

Alexander Wilson (1832) shows that the house wren, although not an open enemy of the downy, causes it a good deal of annoyance by stealing its nest sometimes. He says:

The house wren, who also builds in the hollow of a tree, but who is neither furnished with the necessary tools nor strength for excavating such an apartment for himself, allows the woodpeckers to go on, till he thinks it will answer his purposes, then attacks them with violence, and generally succeeds in driving them off. I saw some weeks ago a striking example of this, where the woodpeckers we are now describing, after commencing in a cherry tree within a few yards of the house, and having made considerable progress were turned out by the wren; the former began again on a pear tree in the garden, fifteen or twenty yards off, whence, after digging out a most complete apartment, and one egg being laid, they were only once more assaulted by the same impertinent intruder, and finally forced to abandon the place.

Maurice Thompson (1885) describes thus the bird's defense against the attack of a goshawk:

I once saw a goshawk pursuing a downy woodpecker, when the latter darted through a tuft of foliage and flattened itself close upon the body of a thick oak bough, where it remained as motionless as the bark itself. The hawk alighted on the same bough within two feet of its intended victim, and remained sitting there for some minutes, evidently looking in vain for it, with nothing but thin air between monster and morsel. The woodpecker was stretched longitudinally on the bough, its tail and beak close to the bark, its black and white speckled feathers looking like a continuation of the wrinkles and lichen.

More commonly, when attacked by a hawk, the downy dodges behind a branch and, if the hawk catches sight of it again, either winds round the branch or dives behind another one. By this adroit defense the downy has a fair chance of eluding the hawk's attack.

Fall and Winter.--We see little change in the behavior of the downy woodpecker at the approach of autumn, at the time when many of the migratory birds are beginning to show a daily increasing restlessness, seeming on tiptoe to start on their long journey, moving about actively in their new feathers, and breaking out sometimes with a phrase of postnuptial song. In the role of permanent resident, the downy remains calm in the midst of the bustle of travel; it may join the hurrying groups for a time, or become surrounded by them, but it does not catch the contagion of  departure, and soon drops behind to continue its local round.

The downy is not forced to seek the sun and warmth and the inexhaustible food of the Tropics, for the woodlands of New England and southeastern Canada are stored with food that, with a roosting hole, enables the bird to withstand the severest winter. But this food is limited; the insects that have been multiplying all summer, thus adding continually to the woodpeckers' supply of food, stop multiplying when the frosts come, and will add no more until spring.

The downy is not a bird that ranges widely in search of food; moreover, for protection against the weather it is held to the vicinity of its roosting hole. Therefore each bird, in order to be sure of sufficient food for itself during the cold months, must maintain dominion over a territory large enough to support it through the winter.

Thus it comes about that in autumn the downy does perforce change its habits, or rather its attitude toward other birds of its species. The families disperse, and until the next breeding season each individual becomes a solitary bird, living in a restricted region, which it defends against trespass, resenting and repelling the approach of any other downy woodpecker.

This reversal of attitude or character--the change from a member of a family to an anchorite in fall, and back again in spring--takes place gradually, we may suppose, and not exactly at the same time in every bird. Hence one bird meeting another in autumn, while the change is in progress, may underestimate the degree to which it has drawn away from its fellows, or, in the spring, may overestimate the amount of cordiality that has returned to the wintering anchorite. This lack of understanding may give rise to behavior difficult or impossible for us to interpret.

Sometimes the relationship between two downies is clear enough, as when, on September 20, 1910, I saw a male fly repeatedly at a female in a menacing way and drive her off; and when on November 3, 1935, I saw a female bird fly toward a male, which was perched near a hole in an electric light pole, from which he did not retire, as a perched bird commonly does when approached by a bird on the wing, but held his ground while she flew away; and when Lewis O. Shelley tells of a female bird "rushing with antagonistic attitude at her two daughters" and also driving off her granddaughters whenever they invaded her winter territory in autumn, all these birds being identified by bands.

There are cases, however, in which the relationship between the birds is very puzzling. In the following scene, from my notes, there is a hint of hostility or remonstrance, but a suggestion of courtship also--out of place, it seems in autumn between two female birds. "October 15, 1935. Two birds are in a large, bare maple tree; one is noticeably larger than the other, but neither one has a red occipital patch. They keep near each other, one following the other by short, quick flights. They perch perfectly motionless for a moment a foot or two apart; then both together sway their heads, swinging them quickly down and up to one side, down and up to the other side. The swing is very rapid, like the wink of an eye. They flit their wings upward and outward, also with the speed of a wink, over and over--all this without a sound. They fly behind a branch sometimes but keep mostly in the sight of each other, and, although neither attacks, each seems wary of attack and dodges away when approached. They sometimes alight on very slender branches, and once a bird goes to the ground where it stands with its head held high up. They move very actively and lightly, with never the slightest blundering, flitting silently and easily from branch to branch."

The following astonishing story, taken from William Brewster's Concord journal (1937), tells of a case in which antagonism of unknown cause leads to the killing with brutal violence of a female downy by a male:

March 20, 1911. We were in the dining-room, consulting about the day's work, when we heard the 'tchick' note of the Downy Woodpecker repeated almost incessantly and very rapidly just outside. For a moment or more we paid no attention to it. But something unusual in its quality and its insistence soon led me to look out and this was what I saw:

On the snow, among the outermost stems of the lilacs on one side of the dense thicket that they form was a female Downy with extended and quivering wings. About her hopped or rather danced a handsome male, showing the red on his occiput very conspicuously. He kept striking at her head with his bill and occasionally he held on for a few seconds, when the two birds fluttered about together and perhaps rolled over once or twice, closely united. At first I thought it an amatory encounter and I am still almost certain that the male attempted to secure sexual contact with the female once or twice. But if so it could not have been his primary or at least sole object. For he continued to peck her head even when she was lying almost motionless on the snow. For a time she seemed to be trying to escape and for fully two minutes her cries were piteous and incessant. At length he left her and flew up into an elm where he clung for a moment or two, making what seemed to me a very unusual display of the red on his occiput. Then of a sudden he swooped down on the female, who had meanwhile been cowering in the middle of a cluster of lilac stems, on the snow. Dragging her forth from this slight shelter into an open space, he attacked her again, this time with obvious fury, fairly raining a shower of blows on the back of her head. She seemed too weak to make any further attempt to escape and her cries, although continued, were so faint that we could only just hear them. I now realized for the first time that he was inspired by the lust of killing and not by sexual ardor. It was very hard to refrain from rushing out and driving him away but I restrained the impulse, not being willing to interrupt a tragedy of such extraordinary, if repulsive, interest. It would have made no difference anyway, for this final onslaught lasted only a very few seconds. During its continuance the male Downy seemed literally beside himself with rage. No Butcher Bird that I have ever watched has shown, while dealing with a Mouse or Sparrow, more murderous energy. After finishing the foul deed he left the female lying perfectly motionless and flew up again into the elm. We now went out and picked up the female. She was still living but unable to move. The [back] of her head was soaked in blood and her bare skull showed in places. She died a little later. I skinned her and preserved her skull which I have attached to the skin. It is punctured in 10 or 12 places. The bird was in normal condition physically with healthy-looking ovary, the ovules undeveloped. The only injuries were to the skull.

Doubtless a few downy woodpeckers move southward in autumn or early in winter, especially from the northern part of the bird's range. Dr. Charles W. Townsend in his Ipswich notes says that he sees "evident migrants not uncommonly in October and November." But most of our birds spend the whole year round with us, and in autumn we may watch them as they make provision for winter. Even before the leaves are off the trees--in September here in New England--we may hear, day after day as we pass a certain tree, the tapping of a downy woodpecker where, invisible from the ground, high up on a branch, it is digging out a cavity, its roosting hole, in which it will sleep alone through the long winter nights, and into which it may retreat in the daytime whenever "the frost-wind blows."

 


Downy Woodpecker*
Picoides pubescens [Northern Downy Woodpecker]
Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1939. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 52-68. United States Government Printing Office

 


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