Picoides pubescensdowny woodpecker

Geographic Range

Downy woodpeckers are found throughout North America, from southeastern Alaska east to Newfoundland, extending south to southern California and Florida. The majority of downy woodpeckers throughout the geographic range are year-round residents. Some populations are locally migratory, especially those along the Atlantic coast. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)


In the northern part of their range, downy woodpeckers favor open deciduous forests and woodlands. This includes mixed, secondary-growth forests of oak-hickory or beech-maple-hemlock. They are less common in conifer-dominated forests unless there is a deciduous understory. Downy woodpeckers are also common in cultivated areas such as orchards, and are sometimes found in urban and suburban settings. In the south, they frequent riparian woods or moist, aspen-willow stands. They are also found in the southern Rocky Mountains. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Range elevation
    2744 (high) m
    9002.62 (high) ft

Physical Description

Downy woodpeckers are smallest woodpeckers native to North America. They are 14.5 to 17 cm long and weigh 21 to 28 g. They are largely black-and-white; their back is black with white down the center and their wings are black with white spots. The head is black with a white stripe above and below each eye. The tail is black with outer portions of white barred with black. The chest and belly are white to grayish.

Downy woodpeckers have whitish nasal tufts at the base of a thick, black, chisel-shaped bill. Males and females are similar in appearance, but the males have a small red patch on the nape of the neck. Juvenile males usually have a red patch on the forehead and lack red on the nape of the neck. Juvenile females look similar to juvenile males, but lack any red on the forehead or nape.

Downy woodpeckers are commonly confused with hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus), which have similar plumage, but are distinctly larger. Downy woodpeckers also have a shorter, stubbier bill (shorter than the length of their head) than hairy woodpeckers. The two species can also be distinguished behaviorally; downy woodpeckers give much less powerful vocalizations and tend to forage on smaller substrates than hairy woodpeckers.

There are eight recognized subspecies of downy woodpeckers. These subspecies are differentiated by geographic range and plumage variation. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    21 to 28 g
    0.74 to 0.99 oz
  • Range length
    14.5 to 17 cm
    5.71 to 6.69 in
  • Range wingspan
    83 to 105 mm
    3.27 to 4.13 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.383 W


Downy woodpeckers are monogamous. Breeding pairs usually begin forming in late winter and early spring (January to March). Once a breeding pair forms, they forage together until incubation begins. This may be a form of mate guarding. Breeding pairs usually stay together for the length of a summer, and may mate together for more than one breeding season. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

The male and female excavate a nest cavity together, usually in a dead limb of a living or dead tree. Excavation takes 7 to 20 days, and is usually begun about two weeks before egg-laying. The female lays 3 to 8 eggs (average 4.8) at a rate of 1 per day. Both parents incubate the eggs; the male incubates at night and the adults share incubation during the day. The eggs hatch synchronously after 12 days. This nestlings are altricial at hatching, but develop very quickly. They are brooded nearly constantly for the first 4 days after hatching, and are fed by both parents. The chicks leave the nest 18 to 21 days after hatching. The parents continue to care for the fledglings for at least three weeks, feeding them, leading them to food sources and warning them of potential predators. Most young downy woodpeckers are able to breed the next season.

Downy woodpeckers occasionally have female "helpers" at the nest. These helpers are not usually offspring of the breeding pair. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Downy woodpeckers breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Downy woodpeckers begin breeding in late winter (January through March)
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 (high) days
  • Range fledging age
    18 to 21 days
  • Range time to independence
    3 (low) weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Both parents incubate the eggs, keep the nest clean, feed the young and protect them from predators. The young remain with the parents for up to three weeks after fledging. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


One wild downy woodpecker lived to be 11 years and 11 months old. Most downy woodpeckers probably do not live this long. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)


Downy woodpeckers are diurnal and non-migratory. They are solitary, though they are occasionally seed foraging in loose association. Males defend a territory against other males, and females defend a territory against females. When an intruder enters a downy woodpecker's territory, the resident woodpecker uses threat displays, such as wing flicking, or fanning their tail, raising their crest and holding their bill high to try to drive the intruder away. If threat displays do not work, downy woodpeckers may attack the intruder, grappling with them in mid-air. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Range territory size
    0.044 (low) km^2

Home Range

Home ranges range from from 0.02 to 0.12 square kilometers and vary with habitat quality (smaller home ranges are required in high-quality habitat). Home ranges are smaller during the nestling period, when adults need to remain near the nest. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

Communication and Perception

Downy woodpeckers use vocalizations and body signals to communicate. They produce a variety of sounds, including "pik", rattle, scolding, "wad", "chirp", squeak, screech, and distress calls. The "pik" call introduces the rattle call, and these are used during aggressive interactions. Short calls, the "wad" and "chirp", are uttered by young birds. A longer note call, the squeak, is also uttered by young downy woodpeckers. The screech and distress calls are used to signal alarm.

Drumming is a common non-vocal sound used by downy woodpeckers to communicate. This sound is heard in most frequently in late winter and spring, and is used to establish and defend a territory, to attract a mate and to communicate between mates.

Downy woodpeckers also use body postures to communicate. Postures exhibited by downy woodpeckers often include some combination of bill pointing and waving, wing flicking, crest raising, wing spreading, tail spreading, head turning and head swinging. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

Food Habits

Downy woodpeckers are omnivorous. Their primary foods include insects and other arthropods, fruits, seeds, sap and some cambium tissue. Beetles, weevils, ants, bugs, plant lice and caterpillars are among the insects eaten. They also consume scale insects and spiders. Downy woodpeckers will also eat suet from backyard feeders.

Downy woodpeckers glean insects from the surfaces of trees, shrubs and large weeds, probe into crevices and excavate shallow holes into wood to find food. Males and females within a population often differ in their foraging habits. For example, in one study in Illinois, males spent more time excavating than females, and females probed bark surfaces more than males.

Downy woodpeckers drink water by scooping it up with their bill. They drink from water that collects on horizontal limb surfaces, in epiphytes, puddles, streams, ponds and bird baths. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • sap or other plant fluids


Adult downy woodpeckers are preyed upon by several species of birds of prey. To hide themselves from predators, downy woodpeckers flatten themselves against the surface of the tree bark and remain motionless. Downy woodpeckers may also dodge a hawk by darting behind a tree branch, or winding their way around the branch to avoid the hawk. In urban areas, downy woodpecker predators include rats and domestic cats. Eggs and nestlings are vulnerable to climbing predators such as snakes and squirrels, as well as other woodpeckers, including red-bellied woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers. By nesting in cavities, downy woodpeckers avoid predation of their eggs and young by animals that cannot get to these cavities. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Downy woodpeckers affect the populations of the insects they prey upon and the plants they eat. They also provide valuable food for their predators. They are host to several species of body parasites, including hippoboscid flies, muscid flies and blowflies.

Abandoned downy woodpecker nest cavities may be used by other cavity-nesting species.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Downy woodpeckers eat wood-boring beetle larvae and other insects that humans consider to be pests. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of downy woodpeckers on humans.

Conservation Status

Downy woodpecker populations seem to be stable and/or increasing in some areas. There are an estimated 13,000,000 downy woodpeckers worldwide. This species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. (Jackson and Ouellet, 2002)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


Jackson, J., H. Ouellet. 2002. Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Pp. 1-32 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 613. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.