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Arkansas Bird of the Month: Downy Woodpecker

January 18, 2022

Male Downy WoodpeckerThe tiniest of the woodpeckers in North America, the Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), is a resident bird in Arkansas and throughout the United States and Canada.  You can find these birds in a variety of habitats; from deciduous or mixed pine and hardwood forests to your own backyard.  I have a pair of Downy Woodpeckers that visit my suet feeders year round.  The routine is the same at every visit.  Male and/or female downy woodpecker land in a nearby tree, often announcing their arrival.  In a short time one will visit the feeder, but never both at the same time.  If a Carolina Chickadee or Tufted Titmouse is at the feeder, no problem.  The Downy Woodpeckers don't seem bothered by other small songbirds, and will feed along side of them.

Regardless of where you see them, in the forest or at your birdfeeders, Downy Woodpeckers are fairly simple to identify.  Their length is 5 1/2 to 6 3/4 inches, and they weigh in at 1 ounce, sometimes slightly less than that.  Compared to a Chickadee, they appear slightly larger, and compared to a Nuthatch, they look about the same size.  Their color pattern is characterized by horizontal rows of white patches on the wings, and there is a wide white stripe down the back.  A male Downy Woodpecker can be distinguished from the female by the red patch on the back of its head.   

On the other hand, Downy Woodpeckers can be very difficult to distinguish from Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus), which occupy the sameFemale Downy Woodpecker range as the Downy Woodpecker and exploit the same habitats.  Color pattern is essentially the same between these two species, but the Hairy Woodpecker is larger at 7 to 10 inches in length.  The bill is about as long as the head, in contrast to the much smaller bill of the Downy Woodpecker.  These two characteristics can be very difficult to estimate from a distance.  Anytime I'm having difficulty with body length or bill size for definite identification, I use my telephoto lens to zoom in, and that can sometimes help.  However, my "go to" is to get a good look at the tail, if possible.  If I see black spots on the outer tail feathers, it's definitely a Downy Woodpecker.  If the white outer tail feathers lack black spots, it's a Hairy Woodpecker.

Ultimately, I tend see a lot of Downy Woodpeckers when I am trekking through forests in the southeastern United States.  I see Hairy Woodpeckers only occasionally, and even then I spend more time than I should mentally debating "wait, is that a Downy Woodpecker or a Hairy Woodpecker?"


**Metrics (bird length and weight) are referenced from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (; accessed 18 Jan 2022).  All other anecdotal descriptions and observations are my own.**