The lovable midget of the woodpecker clan

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110796654926623.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A male downy woodpecker wearing his red cap prepares to enjoy a meal of suet and seed.’);

One of the best loved and the smallest of the North American woodpeckers is the downy. It is sometimes called a sapsucker, but this is an erroneous name, as it does not suck sap. On the contrary, he eats eggs of wood-boring insects and leaf-eating moths, including the gypsy and coddling species. The larvae and pupae of all sorts of destructive insects are equally devoured with relish.

He is a natural protector of fruit trees and does a very good job of it. Sometimes the downy is accused of feeding on apples or pears, but ornithologists have confirmed that when a downy leaves an apple or pear there is always a worm in its beak that was infesting the fruit. He usually starts at the bottom of a tree and works upward; then he dives down to the foot of another tree and repeats the performance. Frequently one observes downies hunting in the woods with companion chickadees.

The downy woodpecker is the most common, friendly, and widespread member of the woodpecker clan found in this country. It may be observed in our forests, on our farms, and around our homes, winter and summer.

A downy is black and white and may be confused with its close relative, the hairy woodpecker. The hairy is much larger than the downy, and the two outside tail feathers on either side are entirely white, whereas in the smaller bird, they are white with two broad black bars. The males of both woodpeckers have a red cap on the back of their heads.

If the two birds are seen together, the hairy will look almost twice as large as the downy, though the actual size difference is not nearly that much. If they are not seen together, it may be hard to estimate and compare sizes. Then, look to the beak. The beak of the hairy is quite long and stout as compared to the shorter beak of its cousin.

There is also a difference in the song notes. The call of the hairy is much firmer and louder, and the clattering cry of the bigger bird is sustained in pitch, whereas the notes of the downy are descending at the finish.

The downy is friendlier than the hairy and will be a daily visitor if a supply of suet is offered as an inducement. I have a suet cake and bell-shaped suet-seed food supply hanging on a nylon string outside my living room window. Not a day passes, during both winter or summer, that at least one or more downies drop by to pay a visit. Hairies, on the other hand, are infrequent visitors to my window, though I sometimes see them in the woods behind my house.

When nesting time arrives, the downy chips out a hole in the underside of a decaying limb that is just large enough for it to enter. The nesting cavity is wrought out with happy labor, and the entrance is just large enough for the bird to squeeze through. The interior of the nest is trimmed into graceful curves, rounding at the bottom into a receptacle for the four to six snowy-white eggs. The birds sometimes carry the chips away, but often are careless of concealment and let the chips fall to the ground. It is interesting to note that the eggs of woodpeckers are always round in shape, an evolutionary adaptation, as they are not apt to roll out of the nest in the tree. On the other hand, birds nesting in more open spaces lay eggs that are ovoid in shape and are not so easily dislodged from the nest.

Downies and hairies prefer to inhabit trees that are neglected by the landowners. They do this because they know such trees will harbor an abundance of insects and other critters. As the woodpecker circles the tree, he taps on the bark until a resonance indicates there is food beneath that piece of bark. He then chips the bark away, and with his forked and sticky tongue impales the larva or pupa and unceremoniously stuffs it down his gullet. He then moves on to sound other parts of the tree in search of more food.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers require a large number of calories each day to supply the energy they expend. Fat, therefore, is their preferred food as a gram of fat, when metabolized, yields twice the number of calories as does a gram of carbohydrate.

To ensure downies will visit your home, provide a commercial suet cake or make one from suet frequently given away at the meat market. But, be sure you place the suet in a spot that deters squirrels, if that is possible, as anyone who has a bird feeder knows!

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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