Meet the downy woodpecker -- designed for drilling holes

  • This downy woodpecker is feeding on suet -- animal fat. Note its toe arrangement and how the tail is used for support.

    This downy woodpecker is feeding on suet -- animal fat. Note its toe arrangement and how the tail is used for support. Courtesy of Karen Lund

By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center

If it weren't for owls, I'd be a woodpecker guy. Like owls, woodpeckers have some amazing adaptations. The downy woodpecker, our country's smallest woodpecker, can be found across the continental United States and southern Canada.

One of my favorite passages about the downy woodpecker was written by A.C. Bent in 1939. As North America was colonized by Europeans, the downy woodpecker, " … did not retreat before his advance but accepted as a home the orchards and shade trees with which man replaced the forest."

The downy woodpecker has black wings spotted with white, a white back, white front, and a dark band of feathers going through the eye with white above and below this dark streak. The long, filamentous white feathers found on this bird's back gave rise to the downy's common name. The male downy has a narrow red patch at the back of the crown.

At less than six inches in length, the downy is not much larger than a house sparrow. Some folks have described the downy's short beak as being "dainty." Speaking as a licensed bird bander, when a downy is drilling your finger with its beak, dainty is not the word that comes to mind.

Besides arthropods in and on the wood, downies also eat seeds and fruits. In the past, as Dutch elm disease spread across the country killing trees, woodpeckers benefitted. Dead wood is home to many types of insects the birds can eat. Currently, emerald ash borer is providing another woodpecker boon.

As you might imagine, woodpeckers need to hold on tight when drilling so hard. Most birds have four toes on a foot. Usually, they have three toes forward and one toe facing back. Woodpeckers do things differently. They have two toes up and two toes down.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Given they spend much of their time on the vertical surface of a tree trunk, this toe arrangement gives them a better grip or, as I like to say, provides superior tree trunk traction.

Their tail feathers also help them with drilling. You see, the stiff feathers come to two points and serve as useful props against a tree's bark.

Sometimes, though, these adaptations help them hang on to the side of a house. Most of the available woodpecker deterrents don't work for very long. The best of them is a shiny flagging. If this metallic ribbon is hung from a gutter or a window sill, it suggests that a snake is slithering nearby. The flagging is most effective if it can flap in a light breeze.

The best thing you can do to keep woodpeckers off your siding is to give them an alternative. So, if there is a dead tree on your property and it isn't leaning over your garage, consider just leaving it there.

This will give the woodpeckers a place to look for food and to drill nest cavities. Once they're done with a cavity, bluebirds, chickadees and maybe even a little screech owl might move in. Owls and woodpeckers in the same yard? It doesn't get any better than that.

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Send questions and comment to him at

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.