Downy woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in North America. Their size puts them just a bit larger than a nuthatch, and they can be identified by their black and white checkerboards wings with red ‘caps’ on the males.
They are one of the more likely woodpeckers to appear at a feeder, especially in the winter when insects are lacking. Their diet also consists of berries, grains, and acorns, which are larger components in the winter, compared to the summer. Though insects are the main part of their diet, downy woodpeckers do enjoy the following feeder snacks:
- Suet (It’s a favourite) → You can either buy it from the store or make your own!
- Sunflower seeds
- Shelled, raw peanuts → Just make sure they don’t go bad! If they do, get rid of them!
- It is recommended that, should you put peanuts out, you put them in a suet feeder to prevent birds from taking whole peanuts and flying away with them. Additionally, ensure that the peanuts remain dry, and that the amount put out won’t last longer than a day. Doing this will prevent the possibility of the peanuts going bad.
- On rare occasions, downy woodpeckers will drink from hummingbird feeders
Downy Woodpeckers are often very prominent in urban areas, as the abundance in birdfeeders is an excellent source of food. However, due to the small size of the downy woodpecker, they are an easy target for cats. In urban areas, cats are one of the larger predator threats to woodpeckers.
- In winter, downy woodpeckers can often be found in mixed flocks alongside chickadees and nuthatches. This behaviour has been found to reduce the risk of predation, as there are more birds to give a warning call, should a threat appear. There is also the added benefit of food resource discovery, meaning different species have different knowledge of food sources, and in flocking with a mix of species, this knowledge is shared.
- They will often respond to mobbing calls (aka a call to crowd a threat / predator to scare it away) from other birds by joining the mob, however they will remain quiet throughout the process.
- They nest in cavities in trees. Downy woodpeckers create these cavities in dead wood, so leaving dead trees (particularly deciduous trees) for these birds, and other cavity nesters is a great help! Plus, there is little need to worry about predators, such as cats, getting into the nests, as they are often high above the ground (at least the height of a person), and on the underside of branches leaning away from the main part of the tree.
- They have bristles around their bill to protect their nostrils from sawdust made while searching or insects or creating a nest.
Suet can be either bought or made. If you feel like making your own, there are tons of Suet recipes online (such as the one below from the Baltimore Bird Club):
– 2 pounds fresh ground suet/lard
– ½ cup crunchy peanut butter
– ½ cup coarsely-chopped shelled sunflower seeds
Melt the suet in a saucepan over a low heat. Add the peanut butter and stir until it is melted and well blended. Add the sunflower seeds and mix thoroughly. Pour into a cake pan and let cool. Once cool, cut into size that fits the suet feeder. With the remaining suet, warp individually and keep in the freezer.
For more information about Downy Woodpeckers, check out this awesome video by Zac Peetsma:
— Sarah DeVries is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph studying Ecology. She can often be found staring at tree tops looking for birds, or with her nose in a book.
Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening to Attract Birds by Julie Zickefoose
The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens by Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress