The little Downy woodpecker is one of our most common year round residents and can be found around homes, in woods and even sometimes in brushy fields. It frequents bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds and is particularly fond of suet. Downy woodpeckers often feed at the tips of very small branches and can be very acrobatic, hanging upside down or moving slowly along on the narrowest most flexible branches. They also move up and down trees looking for insects and despite a bold black and white pattern, are often unassuming and inconspicuous. 

The Downy woodpecker is only about the size of a House sparrow and is boldly marked with a jet black back with bright white "ladder-like" lines and a bright white patch in the middle of the back. The male also sports a bright red patch on the back of the head. Downy woodpeckers can be confused with the very similar looking but larger Hairy woodpecker.

The Downy woodpecker is much more common in East Brunswick than the Hairy woodpecker, especially around homes. A helpful field mark to separate the two is the size and length of the bill. Comparing the bill length to the width of the head is a really useful field tool. In the Downy woodpecker the bill is short and less than the width of the head. In the Hairy woodpecker the bill is at least as long as the head is wide. With a little work and patience the two will be easy to separate. A convenient side by side comparison to both woodpeckers is at ;

In previous articles, I have frequently quoted from well-known ornithologists and older ornithological literature to describe the life histories of our backyard birds. I find these resources and the writing fascinating. Many of the references describe Downy woodpeckers as "industrious" because they continuously and methodically search for food. The renowned ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush noted in 1927 that the Downy woodpecker is a "model of patient industry and perseverance." 

Some of my favorite ornithological references are my tattered and browning Life History Bulletins of North American Birds published by the Smithsonian Institution in the first half of the 20th century. This massive series was written by Arthur Cleveland Bent and other experts he enlisted for help. I've chosen some quotes from the entry on the Downy Woodpecker that is within Bulletin 174 (Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers - 1939) to illustrate a little bit about the life history of this common little woodpecker.

On Feeding - "The downy woodpecker sits very still as it digs out a grub from under the bark of a tree, or from 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 the 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."         

On Flying - "The downy woodpecker, like most of its family, has an undulating flight when flying a considerable distance. The undulations are not as 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 the wings shut, the bird tilts slightly forward, and slides down into the next trough."

On Voice - "...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 "tchcik"...I believe one characteristic of the note that helps us distinguish it is its shortness - it is over almost as soon as it has begun, like a dot in the telegraph code. But in spite of being sharp, it is a modest little sound."     

Downy woodpeckers can be found in many of our parks and neighborhoods. Learn their easy to recognize calls and use the Friends Online Guide to East Brunswick Parks to find some places to look and listen for them. The Guide is available at: For more information about Downy woodpeckers visit the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website at

Published on the EB Patch, 10 Feb 2012


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