“Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.” ~Victor Hugo
I enjoyed participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) recently. And with the winter weather, I did not anticipate seeing many birds, and I was correct. I decided to try out the app, BirdLog this year. It is tied into the GBBC, and is easy to use. And you can continue to add to your sightings throughout the year. It was on sale for 99 cents prior to the GBBC which was a great incentive to give it a try.
So who visited? I saw crows all 4 days, and on the last day we saw bluebirds, nuthatches and chickadees. But the delight of this GBBC and all winter, has been the woodpeckers. Since we added 2 suet feeders, these wondrous birds have been daily visitors (actually many times a day) even in snow storms.
The visits started with this darling female Downy Woodpecker (pictured above), picoides pubescens. She visited often and one day brought a male with her. They were distinguishable by the red patch on the back of the male’s head. They enjoyed the feeders and then spent time in the ash trees flitting around. They made a cute couple. Since then we see only the male. This is because the dominant males will chase off the females from prime feeding spots. Just doesn’t seem fair does it.
Size, Shape and Color
Adult Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in North America measuring about 6 inches in length. It’s coloring is quite lovely with black on the upper body, wings and tail. Their back, throat and belly are white with white spotting on the wings and tail. There is a white bar above the eye and one below. Adult males have a red patch on the back of the head and young birds have a red cap. All woodpeckers have a special shock absorber in their heads allowing them to drill holes in hard green wood. I always wondered how they stood the constant banging.
When you observe them from afar, they look like a typical woodpecker with a straight body type as they lean back onto their tail feathers. Their bill looks smaller than other woodpeckers.
I love watching the woodpeckers glide through the air as they rise and fall quite dramatically. Downy Woodpeckers forage around tree limbs and trunks and are quite acrobatic. It is said the Downy Woodpeckers make lots of noise in spring and summer, both with their shrill call and their loud drumming on trees sometimes signaling the bird’s territory If there are berries in the garden they will partake of these as well.
Downy Woodpeckers are the most likely woodpeckers to visit a backyard bird feeder and they prefer suet feeders. So it wasn’t surprising that these cuties were the first to find my suet feeders. They are also fond of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and chunky peanut butter. So of course they really like my suet which has peanuts in it. I found it fascinating to read that Downy Woodpeckers may drink from oriole and hummingbird feeders too.
Habitat and Nesting
Downy Woodpeckers can be found throughout the US all year in open woodlands, especially among deciduous trees, orchards, parks, backyards and brushy borders.
They breed in deciduous forested areas, where they build nests in tree cavities they carve in dead trees and limbs. You can find them in these tree cavities in winter. I plan to leave snags of trees for woodpeckers and other cavity dwellers when we take down dead trees.
A Bit of Folklore
Many Native American tribes consider a red-headed woodpecker as sacred. The Omaha tribe considered the woodpecker as the protector of children because of how safe this bird keeps its young. Ancient legends tell of the woodpecker as a ‘fire finder’ as the red head symbolizes. It finds fire by boring into the wood of a tree. The species name, Pubescens, means coming into puberty referring to the birds feather which represent a beard.
In the Garden
Woodpeckers are a wonderful addition to a wildlife garden because they eat lots of insects and insect larvae. With these cuties around no one need use insecticides as woodpeckers act as a natural insecticide for your garden. I plan to keep the suet feeders up through early spring and then again in fall and winter. I want these wonderful birds to hang around my wildlife garden as long as they feel welcome.
Recently we noticed a much larger woodpecker visiting the suet feeders that looked like a Downy Woodpecker. Upon further research we found it was a Hairy Woodpecker (pictured left). The two are almost identical except the Hairy Woodpecker is bigger and its beak larger; its beak is as large as its head. And the woodpeckers have begun to sing in the garden….oh maybe spring really is around the corner!
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