Friend Downy – The Woodpeckers

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) Brevard Zoo by Dan

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) Brevard Zoo by Dan



No better little bird comes to our orchards than our friend the downy woodpecker. He is the smallest and one of the most sociable of our woodpeckers,—a little, spotted, black-and-white fellow, precisely like his larger cousin the hairy, except in having the outer tail-feathers barred instead of plain. Nearly everything that can be said of one is equally true of the other on a smaller scale. They look alike, they act alike, and their nests and eggs are alike in everything but size.

Downy is the most industrious of birds. He is seldom idle and never in mischief. As he does not fear men, but likes to live in orchards and in the neighborhood of fields, he is a good friend to us. On the farm he installs himself as Inspector of Apple-trees. It is an old and an honorable profession among birds. The pay is small, consisting only of what can be picked up, but, as cultivated trees are so infested with insects that food is always plentiful, and as they have usually a dead branch suitable to nest in, Downy asks no more. Summer and winter he works on our orchards. At sunrise he begins, and he patrols the branches till sunset. He taps on the trunks to see whether he can hear any rascally borers inside. He inspects every tree carefully in a thorough and systematic way, beginning low down and following up with a peek into every crevice and a tap upon every spot that looks suspicious. If he sees anything which ought not to be there, he removes it at once.



A moth had laid her eggs in a crack in the bark, expecting to hatch out a fine brood of caterpillars: but Downy ate them all, thus saving a whole branch from being overrun with caterpillars and left fruitless, leafless, and dying. A beetle had just deposited her eggs here. Downy saw her, and took not only the eggs but the beetle herself. Those eggs would have hatched into boring larvæ, which would have girdled and killed some of the branches, or have burrowed under the bark, causing it to fall off, or have bored into the wood and, perhaps, have killed the tree.

Nor is the full-grown borer exempt. Downy hears him, pecks a few strokes, and harpoons him with unerring aim. When Downy has made an arrest in this way, the prisoner does not escape from the police. Here is a colony of ants, running up the tree in one line and down in another, touching each other with their feelers as they pass. A feast for our friend! He takes both columns, and leaves none to tell the tale. This is a good deed, too, since ants are of no benefit to fruit-trees and are very fond of the dead-ripe fruit.

And Downy is never too busy to listen for borers. They are fine plump morsels much to his taste, not so sour as ants, nor so hard-shelled as beetles, nor so insipid as insects’ eggs. A good borer is his preferred dainty. The work he does in catching borers is of incalculable benefit, for no other bird can take his place. The warblers, the vireos, and some other birds in summer, the chickadees and nuthatches all the year round, are helping to eat up the eggs and insects that lie near the surface, but the only birds equipped for digging deep under the bark and dragging forth the refractory grubs are the woodpeckers.

So Downy works at his self-appointed task in our orchards summer and winter, as regular as a policeman on his beat. But he is much more than a policeman, for he acts as judge, jury, jailer, and jail. All the evidence he asks against any insect is to find him loafing about the premises. “I swallow him first and find out afterwards whether he was guilty,” says Downy with a wink and a nod.

Most birds do not stay all the year, in the North, at least, and most, in return for their labors in the spring, demand some portion of the fruit or grain of midsummer and autumn. Not so Downy. His services are entirely gratuitous; he works twice as long as most others. He spends the year with us, no winter ever too severe for him, no summer too hot; and he never taxes the orchard, nor takes tribute from the berry patch. Only a quarter of his food is vegetable, the rest being made up of injurious insects; and the vegetable portion consists entirely of wild fruits and weed-seeds, nothing that man eats or uses. Downy feeds on the wild dogwood berries, a few pokeberries, the fruit of the woodbine, and the seeds of the poison-ivy,—whatever scanty and rather inferior fare is to be had at Nature’s fall and winter table.

If in the cold winter weather we will take pains to hang out a bone with some meat on it, raw or cooked, or a piece of suet, taking care that it is not salted,—for few wild birds except the crossbills can eat salted food,—we may see how he appreciates our thoughtfulness. Shall we grudge him a bone from our own abundance, or neglect to fasten it firmly out of reach of the cat and dog? If his cousin the hairy and his neighbor the chickadee come and eat with him, bid them a hearty welcome. The feast is spread for all the birds that help men, and friend Downy shall be their host.

Lee’s Addition:

Downy Woodpecker by Lee Lake Parker Park

Downy Woodpecker by Lee Lake Parker Park

He will bless them that fear the LORD, both small and great. (Psalms 115:13 KJV)

This is Chapter VI from The Woodpeckers book. Our writer, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, wrote this in 1901. There are 16 chapters, plus the Forward, which are about the Woodpecker Family here in America. All the chapters can be found on The Woodpeckers page. I added photos to help enhance the article. In 1901, photography was not like today.

Woodpeckers belong to the Picidae – Woodpeckers Family.


Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) by Raymond Barlow

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) by Raymond Barlow

We have another neat creation from the Lord. I always enjoy watching this little Woodpecker checking out the trees nearby.

Adult Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of North America’s woodpeckers but there are many smaller species elsewhere, especially the piculets. The total length of the species ranges from 5.5 to 7.1 in (14 to 18 cm) and the wingspan from 9.8 to 12 in (25 to 31 cm).

The Downy Woodpecker is mainly black on the upperparts and wings, with a white back, throat and belly and white spotting on the wings. There is a white bar above the eye and one below. They have a black tail with white outer feathers barred with black. Adult males have a red patch on the back of the head whereas juvenile birds display a red cap.

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) by Daves BirdingPix

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) by Daves BirdingPix

The Downy Woodpecker is virtually identical in plumage pattern to the much larger Hairy Woodpecker, but it can be distinguished from the Hairy by the presence of black spots on its white tail feathers and the length of its bill. The Downy Woodpecker’s bill is shorter than its head, whereas the Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is approximately equal to head length.

The Downy Woodpecker gives a number of vocalizations, including a short pik call. Like other woodpeckers, it also produces a drumming sound with its beak as it pecks into trees. Compared to other North American species its drums are slow. (Wikipedia with editing and sounds from xeno-canto)


pik and rattle call


Ochre-collared Piculet (Picumnus temminckii) by Dario Sanches

Ochre-collared Piculet (Picumnus temminckii) by Dario Sanches



3 thoughts on “Friend Downy – The Woodpeckers

  1. Pingback: Green woodpecker in Belgium, video | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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