Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, was described by Audubon as "not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity." The species inhabits most of wooded North America and is found in every Illinois county. Before European settlement this diminutive woodpecker preferred deep woods, but it readily adapted to the orchards and shade trees that replaced the forest.

The Downy, with its contrasting black-and-white plumage, black-and-white head, and broad white stripe down its back, is Illinois' smallest woodpecker. Although it may be confused with the Hairy Woodpecker, the Hairy is half again as large as the Downy. The Downy's bill is also smaller and shorter.


Like all woodpeckers, the Downy has several features that adapt it to arboreal life. Its bill is straight and tapers to a sharp point and is an efficient tool for pecking and drilling into wood. Its nostrils are protected from flying wood chips by a covering of forward-directed tufts of feathers. The Downy has a slender, flexible tongue that is used to extract its favorite food, wood-boring insect larvae, from burrows. The skull's articulation with the bill has been modified to protect the brain, eyes, and ears from the effects of pounding on trees. A wedge-shaped tail consisting of twelve stiff and pointed feathers helps prop the bird while it climbs a tree or clings to a spot. Its toes, two directed forward and two directed backward, help the bird cling to the tree and ascend the trunk.

Male courtship activities begin during the warm days of March, and once a mate is chosen nest excavation begins. Downies nest in a cavity 8 to 50 feet above ground. The cavity, usually found in dead or dying wood, is gourd-shaped, turning downward and widening soon after penetrating the wood and extends to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. The entrance to the cavity is a perfect 1.25-inch circle, just large enough to admit the bird's body.

Egg laying begins during the end of March in the southern part of the state and extends to June 1 in the northern part of Illinois. Four to five pure white eggs are laid with both parents sharing in the incubation. The eggs will hatch in 12 days and by mid-June the young and adults are wandering about.

By autumn the Downy Woodpecker families have dispersed and each individual becomes solitary until the next breeding season. In autumn, when their tapping is heard they are busy excavating a roosting hole. The best time to watch these woodpeckers is in the winter when the trees and shrubs are bare of leaves. Also during the winter, Downy populations increase in urban areas. Each winter the industrious Downies earn another name, that of "suet gourmand." These attractive, active birds are thus a common site at most winter bird feeders across Illinois.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

Illinois Natural History Survey

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Champaign, IL 61820

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