Photograph by George Grall, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A male downy woodpecker searches for food.

Photograph by George Grall, Nat Geo Image Collection

Downy Woodpecker

About the Downy Woodpecker

Our smallest woodpecker, the downy is also among our most widespread and familiar species; it is a confiding bird that often visits feeders. In all respects it suggests a small version of the hairy woodpecker, both differing from our other species by the broad white stripe down the back. Poly­typic. Length 6".


The small size and often acrobatic foraging on small branches and twigs are distinctive, and the plumage pattern can be confused only with the hairy. Has hybridized with the Nuttall’s. Adult: black crown, auricular and malar; upper back, scapulars and rump black, but a broad white stripe extends down the center of the back. Underparts unmarked white (to grayish buff in some populations). Outer tail feathers white with limited black spotting; variable white spotting on the upperwing coverts and barring on the remiges. Male has a small red nuchal patch, lacking in the female. Juvenile: as in other pied woodpeckers, both sexes have a pale red patch in the center of the crown, more extensive in male.

Geographic Variation

The 7 subspecies differ mainly in size (northern birds generally larger), underpart color (white to gray tinged), amount of black in rectrices, and amount of white spotting in wings. Southeastern birds are smaller and slightly grayer below than boreal and northeastern birds. Pacific coast birds have reduced white spotting on the wing coverts and secondaries; such white spotting is most highly developed in birds east of the Rockies. Birds of the Pacific Northwest are tinged gray on the back and gray-buff below.

Similar Species

Nearly identical in patterning to the hairy woodpecker. The downy is much smaller, with a short bill (much shorter than head); outer tail feathers usually show black spots (but these can be lacking, and darkest Hairy subspecies may show a few spots). Pale nasal tuft of the downy is relatively larger than in the hairy. The hairy shows a larger wedge of black from the rear of the malar stripe onto the breast. Note differences in calls.


Call: pik call is higher and much softer than hairy’s sharp, ringing peek. Commonly gives a distinctive high, slightly descending and accelerating whinny, kee-kee-kee-kee. Drum: a soft roll, slightly slower than that of hairy; about 17 beats a second, with drum lasting 0.8–1.5 seconds.

Status and Distribution

Common; uncommon in northern boreal regions. Year-round: resident in a variety of deciduous woodlands and, more sparsely, in coniferous forests; also found in parks, gardens, and orchards, even in urban regions. Absent from most of the lowlands of the desert Southwest. Dispersal: this species is not migratory, but some individuals can disperse long distances. Casual in southern Arizona, Queen Charlotte Island.


Generally stable or increasing, but some declines have been noted in the Southeast.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006