Creatures in My Backyard – Issues #4 – Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is this months Creature in My Backyard. Now, as an affirmed bird watcher, woodpeckers are a species not easy to get pictures of, that is why this picture is courtesy of Wikipedia. I do two things when spotting a bird I can’t name. One thing I do is pull out my large bird book (I was going to say “big bird book” but realized I was saying “big bird”, no thanks) called The Encyclopedia of North American Birds, and sometimes I pull out “Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds” which is a small book, comparatively, but sometimes just as useful. This one is copyrighted in 1956; cool, huh? Okay, so I like old books.

The other thing I do is go to AllAboutBirds.org where I can see more photos and also hear their sounds. Its a really helpful component to the site at the time when you hear the sound and you didn’t see the bird. I confess, I’ve spent hours just trying to locate a bird by its sound when I should have been doing something else.

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest North American woodpecker and looks like the Hairy Woodpecker but is only two thirds its size. They say these two are hard for beginning bird watchers to distinguish between. The differences are, ultimately, in size, as already mentioned. The Hairy Woodpecker is slightly over 9 inches long while Downies are only 6 3/4 inches long. Also their bills are smaller, though male Downies bills are still longer than female Downies. As is common among the animal kingdom, the female lacks an aspect of color known to woodpeckers, namely the red head, or in the case of the Downy, a red nape. But her black bands and white back and belly are just as vibrant.

Above 50 feet, Downies usually choose deciduous trees that have fungus in their bark since this makes the drilling easier. When the hole is dug, the female lays 3-8 eggs and the parents take turns incubating them for the next 2 weeks. Uniquely, the male Hairy Woodpecker will incubate the eggs at night and the female during the day, contrary to the Downy. Why God made them to be different in that respect no one will know.

Female Downy Woodpecker

After this though, the parents don’t have much time with their children because in 3 weeks of hatching the juveniles are now ready to set out on their own. Talk about empty nesters. But short family time is another fact common among the class Aves.
But unlike most birds, woodpeckers do not sing. Instead, they make a high, husky pik, or just plain drill to communicate. Interestingly, when you hear the drilling of a woodpecker, you most likely assume it is drilling for food such as insects but that is not the case. Woodpeckers are known to be quiet feeders even when vigorously drilling. They drill to let other birds know what is their territory. Females drill to let males know they are ready for mating. And who knows, some might drill simply because they like to. Its amazing how solidly God made their heads. Absolutely amazing. And if you don’t believe me, try knocking your head into the wall really fast about 15 times and see what happens. (Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any damage done when trying this experiment.)

If you want to attract these adorable little noisemakers, I’ve read suet feeders are the best choice. But they also like black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and (believe it or not) chunky peanut butter. They will also occasionally drink from your hummingbird or oriole feeder though I have never noticed any on ours.

Here’s some trivia. Can you guess what the french call these creatures? Pic mineur, which means,… well, Downy Woodpecker.
The oldest known Downy lived to be 11 years, and 11 months old. This bird wasn’t partial to even numbers which are something I am inclined towards.

Eastern Bluebird

Since I started this series on Creatures in My Backyard, every creature (or in one case, organism) I have written about has practically been dropped into my lap. Before I can even come to the last Friday of the month I’ve had some experience involving these creatures that makes them prime choices for my blog post. Of course this is only issue #4, but its happened so far. Like the Issue #2: Baby Squirrel, God allowed me to find the poor little thing so that we could save its life. And then the mushrooms were too beautiful to pass up. Maybe eventually I will have to grab a book and pull an animal out of a hat, but there’s one thing I can count on, there is always some creature in our backyard.

It so happens the story behind this fourth Friday’s post also involves my dogs (see link for Baby Squirrel for another instance). I was feeding them some leftovers that they love so dearly when I heard a slightly more uncommon chirp from the pine trees looming in from of me. I followed the sound and spotted many different birds. I ran back inside and grabbed the camera. I was able to get a picture of a bluebird and a squirrel and I took a video of the Downy Woodpecker. Click the video below to see what I saw. (To see the pics of the Squirrel, once again, you can click the link above that says Baby Squirrel).

Sorry for the wobbly camera movement. I was leaned up against our trampoline and holding my breath as much as possible but it still came out shaky. The bird with the woodpecker is a bluebird, as far as I can tell. I never got a good view of its back.

My first guess was the Downy was searching for food because he wasn’t making much of a drilling sound. Or maybe it was sort of a mating dance he was doing, trying to attract a female. Well, sorry bud, it didn’t look like it worked. It is quite funny though, how he went around and around the branch, pecking away with such ferocity. Amazing creatures. If you look closely you can see his red nape.

And this is the end of the fourth issue of Creatures in My Backyard. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

Eastern Bluebird’s silhouette
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