by Alex Forsythe
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest species of woodpecker in North America. It is also one of the most widespread of our woodpeckers and it is the one most often seen on backyard suet feeders.
Unlike human couples who like to dine together, Downy Woodpeckers are not sociable eaters, particularly in winter. The males and females do not go out to dinner together and the males are hardly chivalrous; the males have a tendency to drive the females away from the best foraging locations. Males search for food on smaller branches and on weed stems (since Downy Woodpeckers are small, they can forage on weeds that cannot support the weight of larger woodpeckers). Females forage on larger branches and tree trunks. In winter, you are more likely to find these birds on rough-barked trees since insects prefer to overwinter in rough-barked trees rather than in smooth-barked trees.
These beneficial birds help keep the populations of pest insects under control. They are known to eat over 40 types of insects, including bark beetles, apple borers and weevils. To attract these birds to your back yard, all you need is a suet feeder. I have found that the suet feeders designed such that the bird must hang upside-down to eat tend to keep some of the nuisance birds away. The suet feeders that are upright allow for better photos, but the House Sparrows, Starlings and squirrels eat all of the suet within a day or two. If you would prefer to make your own suet, “Birds and Blooms” magazine has several recipes online: http://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/attracting-birds/feeding-birds/make-homemade-suet/
The territorial “song” of the Downy sounds less like Mozart and more like Stomp. They are percussionists that announce their presence by drumming on wood or metal at up to 17 beats per second. The Downy also has a “pik” alarm call and a whinnying call used during breeding season by both male and female.
If you notice a Downy Woodpecker suddenly freeze and squeeze itself against a tree trunk, look around. There might be a Cooper’s Hawk or other predator nearby. These birds will squeeze against their perch motionless for up to ten minutes if they sense danger. During this time, they look almost artificial, and they have fooled visitors at Pokagon State Park when I have volunteered at the bird observation window in the Nature Center. Visitors were certain that the birds were statues that we placed on the suet feeders as decorations!