Birds – The Downy Woodpecker

(Dryobates pubescens) Woodpecker family

Length—6 to 7 inches. About the size of the English sparrow.

Male—Black above, striped with white. Tail shaped like a wedge. Outer tail feathers white, and barred with black. Middle tail feathers black. A black stripe on top of head, and distinct white band over and under the eyes. Red patch on upper Conspicuously Black and White side of neck. Wings, with six white bands crossing them transversely; white underneath.

Female—Similar, but without scarlet on the nape, which is white. Range—Eastern North America, from Labrador to Florida. Migrations—Resident all the year throughout its range.

The downy woodpecker is similar to his big relative, the hairy woodpecker, in color and shape, though much smaller. His outer tail feathers are white, barred with black, but the hairy’s white outer tail feathers lack these distinguishing marks.

He is often called a sapsucker-though quite another bird alone merits that name—from the supposition that he bores into the trees for the purpose of sucking the sap ; but his tongue is ill adapted for such use, being barbed at the end, and most ornithologists consider the charge libellous. It has been surmised that he bores the numerous little round holes close together, so often seen, with the idea of attracting insects to the luscious sap. The woodpeckers never drill for insects in live wood. The downy actually drills these little holes in apple and other trees to feed upon the inner milky bark of the tree—the cambium layer. The only harm to be laid to his account is that, in his zeal, he sometimes makes a ring of small holes so continuous as to inadvertently damage the tree by girdling it. The bird, like most others, does not debar himself entirely from fruit diet, but enjoys berries, especially pokeberries.

He is very social with birds and men alike. In winter he attaches himself to strolling bands of nuthatches and chickadees, and in summer is fond of making friendly visits among village folk, frequenting the shade trees of the streets and grapevines of back gardens. He has even been known to fearlessly peck at flies on window panes.

In contrast to his large brother woodpecker, who is seldom drawn from timber lands, the little downy member of the family brings the comfort of his cheery presence to country homes, beating his rolling tattoo in spring on some resonant limb under our windows in the garden with a strength worthy of a larger drummer.

This rolling tattoo, or drumming, answers several purposes: by it he determines whether the tree is green or hollow; it startles insects from their lurking places underneath the bark, and it also serves as a love song.