Backyard Ecology Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife

Downy Woodpecker

Downy woodpeckers are common visitors to suet feeders and bird feeders with black oil sunflowers. Female downy woodpeckers lack the red spot on the back of their heads that male downy woodpeckers have. Photo credit: Mike’s birds, cc-by-sa 2.0

Downy woodpeckers can be found in a variety of habitats throughout Kentucky and the surrounding states. They can often be found in backyards and can be frequent visitors to bird feeders and suet feeders, especially in the winter. In fact, although we always think of woodpeckers as eating insects, up to 25% of a downy woodpecker’s diet can be berries, seeds, and other plant material.

The downy woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. It is a little shorter than a cardinal, but has a similar wingspan as a cardinal. Downy woodpeckers are primarily black and white. The males have a red spot on the back of their heads, while females lack the red. Immature birds of both sexes lack the red spot on the back of the head and instead have a red spot between their eyes.

Downy woodpeckers form pair bonds in late winter. Both the male and female will excavate the nesting cavity which is often found in a dead branch. Creating the nesting cavity can take 2-3 weeks and each nesting cavity is usually only used once. The female will lay between 3 and 6 eggs that will take approximately 2 weeks to hatch. Both the male and female will take turns incubating the eggs and then feeding the nestlings after they hatch. The young leave the nest approximately 3 weeks after they hatch.

The downy woodpecker’s small size allows it to take advantage of feeding locations that aren’t available to larger woodpeckers. Some of these feeding sites include the stems of tall flowers where they go after larva buried in the stem or developing in galls. Of course, downy woodpeckers can also be found foraging along tree branches and trunks like other woodpeckers.

Downy woodpeckers can sometimes be found foraging along the stems of tall wildflowers where they will go after larva developing in galls or buried in the stems. Male downy woodpeckers have a red spot on the back of their heads that the females do not have. Photo credit: Kelly Colgan Azar, cc-by-nd 2.0

The loud drumming of woodpeckers that many people associate with feeding activities, is actually a form of communication. Downy woodpeckers have several different types of drumming behavior depending on what they are trying to communicate. For most of those communication types, the woodpecker will search out the “perfect” spot which has the right pitch and resonance. Both male and female downy woodpeckers will drum. They also communicate through a chattering call.

Downy woodpeckers can be fun birds to watch and listen to both in the woods and in your backyard. If you put up a bird feeder with black oil sunflower seeds and suet during the winter, then there is a good chance that you will attract one of these cool little woodpeckers. It is often considered the most common woodpecker to visit backyards and feeders. And, since downy woodpeckers don’t migrate, once you get used to spotting them around your feeders during the winter, it will become much easier to spot them in other locations and other times of the year.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology. All of Shannon’s Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blogs can be found at

Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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