Beak of the Week – Downy Woodpecker

✏️ By Ryan Call, Houston Audubon Young Professionals Advisory Council 2021

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

Family: Picidae

Perhaps the most common woodpecker in North America, the Downy Woodpecker thrives all across the continent: from the tree line in Alaska and Canada to the southernmost forests of California and Florida (Birds of the World). In Houston, we can often hear this bird year-round, calling its rapid, descending, whinny call or drumming—in the spring, especially—on trees, wooden fences, and even the sides of our houses.

I think what excites me most about Downy Woodpeckers is this: I often observe these birds in mixed flocks during winter as they flitter through the trees along the walk near my house. I so often see them foraging with Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse; interestingly, a study by Sullivan in 1984 indicates that in these mixed flocks of greater than or equal to three birds, Downy Woodpeckers are more successful foragers!

Another fascinating behavior of Downy Woodpeckers is their courtship display. In the spring, you might be as fortunate as I was two years ago at Brazos Bend State Park to see the Downy Woodpecker’s Butterfly Flight, a courtship display that is “a flight characterized by holding the wings high and flapping them slowly and weakly like a butterfly, moving dancelike through open spaces between trees” as the male and female chase each other to and fro.

While they are excellent at finding insects on smaller branches and twigs, Downy Woodpeckers are also wonderful backyard birds and will eagerly come to feeders; they prefer suet and black-oil sunflower seeds. Look for these little friends throughout your neighborhood, in nearby parks, and along tracts of wood in the area. If you wish to go further to welcome them to your yard, do your best to allow dead limbs of seven inches in diameter to remain (if safely located) on nearby trees so that these diminutive woodpeckers can nest and feed without worry.

Greg Lavaty
Greg Lavaty
 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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