Looking for a flash of red this season? The downy woodpecker provides color in backyard
bird feeders throughout winter, feeding on suet when its usual diet of insects, seeds, and berries is restricted by cold weather. In addition to the slow drumming sound made by pecking trees, this species of woodpecker is characterized by a short “pik” call. Downy woodpeckers roost in tree cavities to shelter from winter’s chill.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of North America’s woodpeckers, with a length of between 5 and 7 inches and a weight of around one ounce. Downies are mostly black, with a white back, throat, and belly. They have white spots on their wings and white bars above and below their eyes. Juveniles sport red caps, and adult males have a red patch on the back of their heads.
Backyard birders can lure downy woodpeckers to their yards with suet feeders. Different birds prefer different food: goldfinches and song sparrows are partial to nyjer seed, while nuthatches, jays, chickadees, and purple finches prefer black oil sunflower. Millet attracts Eastern towhees and dark-eyed juncos, and cardinals enjoy dining on safflower. Robins, bluebirds, and cedar waxwings are fond of fruit: add a handful of raisins to the feeder to attract these birds.
To enjoy winter birds in the wild, visit the Arboretum in the weeks ahead. Some birds have migrated, but many are still active in the Arboretum’s thickets, meadows, and woodlands. If you’re lucky, you might even hear the “pik” of the downy or see a spot of red through the trees.
by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director