Downy Woodpecker: Bird Finder for July 31
by Kathy Van Der Aue
Anyone with a bird feeder already knows this diminutive woodpecker. At about six inches in length, this black and white clinging bird has a coast to coast distribution and is the smallest of our woodpecker family. It is here in Connecticut year round and does not migrate.
Distinguishing it from its larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker is perhaps a beginning birder’s earliest identification challenge. If you see them together, the size difference is obvious, but when you glimpse one at a distance, it can be confusing.
Bill size is the easiest field mark differentiator. The Hairy’s bill is much longer, as wide as its head, whereas the Downy has a little bill, only half the width of its head. Males have a red spot on the back of the head, females do not.
Interesting facts: Downy Woodpeckers each have a distinguishing neck nape pattern, almost like a fingerprint. I once wondered how many Downies I had visiting my feeders and photographed their nape patterns over a two week period. After carefully analyzing my photos I discovered 15 different individuals, far more than the one or two visible at any one time.
They also form long-term pair bonds, as we Connecticut Audubon Society bird banders discovered to our delight one cold fall morning. We caught a pair of Downies that already had bands, a male and a female together in our net, only a few feet apart. When we processed them we found that they had old bands with consecutive band numbers. A search of our old records disclosed that we had banded them together there at Birdcraft, five years earlier.
Conservation status: These birds are common, IUCN status of “least concern.” Don’t let the fact that these birds are easy to see spoil the delight of getting to know them better.
Kathy Van Der Aue is a member of the Fairfield Board of Governors for The Connecticut Audubon Society, and a member of the bird-banding team at Birdcraft Sanctuary.
Photo by Alan D. Wilson, Carolinabirds.org.