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June 16, 2021

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Return of Bird of the Week: Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker, McCall, Idaho
Common, very widely distributed and tolerant of humankind, the Downy Woodpecker is easily attracted to a suet feeder. Its range extends across North America, from the Seward Peninsula in Alaska to southern Florida, and from southern California to Labrador. A smaller version of the Hairy Woodpecker, it’s interesting because the male and female generally forage on different parts of a tree or shrub. The male usually probe smaller branches; the female on larger branches and the trunk.
Downy Woodpecker Female, Fairbanks, Alaska (photo by Mrs. WC)
There are seven subspecies. The female above is medianus, found across the boreal forest; the male is leucurus, fond in the Rocy Mountains and Intermountain West.
Juvenile Downy Woodpecker (probably male), Fairbanks, Alaska
Juvenile Downys are more dark gray than black, and oftenhave some reddish feathers on their foreheads, typically more extensive in young males. Downy Woodpeckers also generally follow Bergmann’s Rule, with birds in the northern latitudes or at higher altitudes larger than their southerly, low elevation colleagues. They are generally resident year round, although there is some evidence of birds migrating down from very high elevations. The nest is a cavity excavated in a tree (or a wooden fencepost), usually dead or weakened by fungus. It takes 2-3 weeks for the nesting pair to excavate the cavity. There are 3-8 eggs, which hatch after about 12 days of incubation. They are brooded for the first 4 days. Both the male and female share incubation and brooding. The hatchlings fledge in about three weeks, but get another three weeks of care and feeding after leaving the nest. Downy Woodpeckers can live as long as 11 years. Two additional notes: Downy Woodpeckers do not do well with radio satellite transmitters, even very might weight ones. So movement of the species within its range is not well understood. And while they come readily to suet feeders, those feeders should be taken down in the spring: melted suet damage the feather follicles on a Downy’s face, leading to loss of feathers. For more bird photographs, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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