Bird of the Week: Downy Woodpecker

Photo by Evan Lipton

Downy woodpeckers can be found here in Central Texas year-round. Downy woodpeckers are common in any woods, especially near rivers or groves of deciduous trees. Perhaps this is not the right crowd for this confession, but here goes: if you’re anything like me all woodpeckers look more or less.. the same. Well, not all, but most! The 4 most common species in Central Texas are hard to differentiate due to the black and white striped wings, death grip claws, and red patch on or near the head. Well, here’s a fun tip (if you need it) for narrowing it down to a downy: only downy and hairy woodpeckers have a large white patch on their back. Also, downys are the smallest of all woodpeckers, with a very short bill. They may or may not have a red patch on the back of their head. They’re more frequently seen moving horizontally or downwards on a tree trunk than other species of woodpecker. White back, short bill, small body– you’re welcome!

They’re most noticeable when they’re banging their heads against trees. Have you ever wondered why they don’t get concussions? So has David Sibley, and he lays it out for us: they have tiny brains for one, their brains have evolved to absorb impact from front to back, and they have a little extra cushion inside their upper mandible for extra shock absorption!

If you do see a woodpecker banging against a tree, he is most likely doing one of three things: drumming, excavating, or foraging. Drumming is a woodpeckers way of making music, mostly in spring, and mostly aimed at communicating to potential suitors or rivals. It’s loud but generally doesn’t damage wood. Excavating a nest on the other hand, does a fair amount of damage as they chip out large holes in tree trunks. This process takes several weeks and lots of effort, so they often select trees that are deciduous and/or rotting to make the task a little easier. They chip away at the wood until there’s a round inch-wide hole they can fit through, then continue to excavate until a cozy 6-12” cavity is complete and ready for eggs.

Lastly, foraging. In summer when insects abound, they tap and chip at the bark eating any little creepy crawly they come across. In winter though, when the going gets tough and insects and larvae burrow deeper into the bark, they’re more likely to tap into their true superpower: they’re freakishly long, retractable tongue. I bet you didn’t know that woodpeckers have (compared to their body size) some of the longest tongues of any animal on earth! This comes in very handy for probing through tree bark, as it has a barbed and sticky tip and can bend in any direction, following insects through all kinds of tunnels and trapping them. Whenever they’re done using their tongue, it just rolls up on the inside of their skull, similar to a measuring tape! It’s really very weird.

So the next time you see a downy woodpecker, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the absurdity of this creature with death grip claws, a football helmet skull and a sticky measuring tape tongue.

By Abby West


Audobon Field Guide
All About Birds Guide
What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley