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Downy Woodpecker
Picoides pubescens

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest and one of the most widespread woodpeckers in North America. It can be found year round in forests from coast to coast and from Alaska to southern Florida. It is equally at home in urban woodlots as wilderness forests, and is readily attracted to backyard bird feeders.

Description: This small black-and-white woodpecker is white below, has a plain white back, and black wings with white spotting. The tail is black with outer tail feathers that are black-spotted or barred white. The face is white with black stripes, and the bill is black and short. Males and female are easily distinguished; the male has a red patch on back of the head, and the female does not.
Length: 6.75"
Wingspan: 12"
Weight: 0.95 oz

Voice: Song is a rapid downward whinny of notes. Call is a soft quick pik.

Similar Species:

  • Hairy Woodpecker is very similar in plumage, but islarger and has a proportionately larger bill (see link below). They give an even-pitched rattle song, and a stronger sharper peek call note.

Habitat: In Tennessee the Downy Woodpecker is found in all forest types, but is somewhat less common in pine forests and at high elevations. It is commonly seen in backyards and readily visits bird feeders, especially suet feeders.

Diet: Downy Woodpeckers use their bills to drill into trees and dig out insects like beetles, wasps, moths and insect larvae. They will also drink sap from Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers holes. In Tennessee they are occasionally seen foraging on dead corn stalks in fall and winter.

Nesting and reproduction: Males maintain territories throughout the year. Breeding behavior begins in late winter with the male and female drumming in response to one another. The female chooses the nest site and the male does most of the cavity excavation.

Clutch Size: Usually 4 to 5 eggs, with a range of 3 to 6. In Tennessee, egg laying peaks in mid- to late April.

Incubation: Both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days.

Fledging: Both parents care for the chicks, which fledge in 20 to 25 days. They remain dependent on the parents for another 3 weeks.

Nest: A new nest is made annually, usually in the trunk of a dead tree or the dead branch of a live tree. The nest takes 13 to 20 days to complete. The average nest height in Tennessee is 17 feet above the ground.

Status in Tennessee: The Downy Woodpecker is probably the most abundant woodpecker found throughout the state. The population appears stable.

Dynamic map of Downy Woodpecker eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Foraging techniques vary with sex; males tend to forage more on smaller branches in the upper canopy; females more on larger branches and trunks of trees. Males appear to keep the females from foraging in the more productive spots. When males were experimentally removed from a woodlot, the females shifted their foraging to the smaller branches.
  • Each bird excavates a winter roost cavity.
  • American colonial naturalist Mark Catesby (1683-1749) named this woodpecker. "Downy" refers to the soft white feathers of the white lower back, in contrast to the similar, but more hair-like feathers of the Hairy Woodpecker.
  • The oldest known Downy Woopecker in the wild was 11 years 11 months old.

Obsolete English Names: willow woodpecker

Best places to see in Tennessee: Nearly all forests statewide, excluding some high elevations in East Tennessee and pine plantations.

For more information:

For more information on distinguishing Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers


Jackson, J. A., and H. R. Ouellet. 2002. Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). The Birds of North America, No. 613 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.