(This 723rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 6, 2005.)
I usually hear a downy before I see it. A soft, clear "pick" call draws my attention and soon I spot the little black and white woodpecker working its way along a tree limb. When I focus binoculars on it, I can easily identify its gender. Only the male has a red spot on the back of its head.
That red spot leads some people to call the males red-headed woodpeckers, an error because the real red-headed woodpecker's entire head is red.
Although it is smaller overall, the downy woodpecker is easily confused with its less common relative, the hairy woodpecker. Their color patterns are strikingly similar but a quick glance at the bill will suffice to discriminate the two species: the hairy's bill is proportionally much larger. Its call is also a louder, higher pitched "peek".
I'm not the only one who likes this busy little woodpecker. Consider what some famous early ornithologists had to say. Audubon described it as "perhaps not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity." Wilson named two of its principal characteristics as familiarity and perseverance. He and Nuttall both added its "indefatigable diligence" and Forbush spoke of its patience. Not bad for a tiny woodland forager.
What draws me to downy woodpeckers, however, is their independence. This is the same quality that many of us appreciate in house cats. Both cat and woodpecker pay you little attention, quite unlike the more sociable chickadees that seem to seek out your regard and are easily coaxed to take seeds from your hand. Downy woodpeckers rarely do that, instead simply going about their business.
Because they pay us so little heed though, their searches for insects and seeds can lead them to approach quite near. Then we can study their busy activities. Many of us also invite these birds to our yard by putting out suet or black oil sunflower seeds. The accompanying photo by Willie D'Anna shows one at his home feeder.
Older studies of the stomach contents of downy woodpeckers indicate that their diet is about three-fourths insects, one-fourth seeds and fruit. Among those insects many are wood-borers including the destructive pine weevil, which according to Forbush, "kills the topmost shoot of the young white pine and so causes a crook in the trunk of the tree."
In feeding, the downy woodpecker's feet, two toes in front, two behind, Alice Walker tells us, "serve to clamp the bird to the tree. 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 without the aid of the long, slender, extensile tongue. This remarkable tool is provided with barbs, converting it into a spear, which may be hurled far beyond the tip of the beak."
The cartilage supporting that remarkable tongue is coiled down into the throat and from there up over the top of the skull. Thus the little woodpecker literally reels its tongue in and out. It is also coated with a glue-like saliva which gives those borers even less chance to escape.
The downy woodpecker's food habits are almost entirely beneficial. In addition to taking grubs from trees, they probe goldenrod stems to find the larvae in those round galls. They do, however, eat poison ivy berries. Since the seeds pass though their digestive system without harm, downies help to distribute these noxious plants.
I conclude with a delightful story shared by Canadian birder Gail Burgess: "About a month ago I spotted a shrike just after it had taken a chickadee and was perched in a tree near my feeder, pecking feathers from the dead bird. Sad, but that's what shrikes do. Then more recently, a shrike flew into my glass doors and sat on the deck for about ten minutes recovering. Finally, it perked up and flew to a branch near the feeder. After several minutes, a downy woodpecker came to the feeder and saw the shrike. It flew to the same branch and walked along toward the shrike, spreading its wings. Quite daring since the downy was about the same size as the shrike. Then the downy pecked the shrike several times in the chest until it flew away. The downy had acted like a kid in the schoolyard defending its friends from the bully!" -- Gerry Rising