Good Birds in the Garden: The Downy Woodpecker
by Caroline McKee
There’s nothing more heartening in the winter than hearing the cheerful kuk-kuk-kuk of a woodpecker as you fight your way through blustering wind or snow. That unmistakable pecking noise probably comes from the downy woodpecker, North America’s most common back-yard woodpecker.
Quite small and surprisingly tame, the downy woodpecker has easily recognizable markings: a black-and-white-striped back with a thick white line down the center, and, if it’s a male, a bright red patch on the back of the head. Don’t confuse the downy woodpecker with the hairy woodpecker—the two breeds have very similar markings, but the downy is much smaller and it makes a deeper call. They have a short, sharp beak made for boring into trees, which is how they find insect larvae to eat. You can also spot downy woodpeckers at your birdfeeder or foraging in shrubs for fruit or insects. (Get your free Garden Bird Guide from Horticulture here.)
Downy woodpeckers are found mostly in deciduous forests throughout the United States, and they remain in their breeding grounds all year long. They live in cavity nests, often in dead tree trunks or decaying branches that they’ve excavated themselves, so don’t be too quick to remove such from your yard.
Bird Garden Task: Evaluate Trees
Woodpeckers use dead and decaying trees, known as snags, for both feeding and nesting. Forest managers often cut down snags because they pose threats of forest fire or insect epidemics, while homeowners remove them because they’re unsightly or unsafe. Eliminating dead trees displaces cavity nesters from their homes, and some bird populations have been severely decimated because of this widespread practice.
If the tree or limb does not pose a threat to a building, pathway or passersby, seriously consider leaving it in place. A certified arborist can help determine the likelihood that a snag will fall.
Don’t worry too much about insects, because the very cavity nesters you’re welcoming will control their populations.
Bird Behavior: Drumming
Drumming is exactly what it sounds like: that rapid-fire tapping heard all year long that signals a woodpecker nearby. Woodpeckers drum for a wide variety of reasons. They don’t have a real song like most birds, so their species-specific drumming pattern substitutes as a territorial and mating call. This is why you may spy woodpeckers tapping on street signs or other surfaces that clearly don’t offer a food source. Woodpecker drumming might also indicate that they are excavating a roosting and nesting cavity. And, of course, sometimes the drumming that you hear means a woodpecker is looking for food. A woodpecker’s beak is specially adapted to withstand many, many sharp blows against hard tree trunks. Woodpeckers also have especially long tongues so that they can reach the insects deep inside the holes they’ve drilled.