The Downy Woodpecker is a delightful little bird that can be seen throughout the year at the arboretum. It is black and white with white spots on the wings, a white stripe down the center of the back, and a striped head. It also has spots on the outer tail feathers. The sexes are easily distinguished by the vivid red patch on the back of the male’s head, which is absent on the female.

In the fall and early winter, the males and females lead more independent lives. All About Birds by The Cornell Lab reports: “Male and female Downy Woodpeckers divide up where they look for food in winter. Males feed more on small branches and weed stems, and females feed on larger branches and trunks. Males keep females from foraging in the more productive spots. When researchers have removed males from a woodlot, females have responded by feeding along smaller branches.”

This is all about to change as winter draws to a close and they start pairing up for mating. The first sign of this is when both sexes begin drumming by striking their bills against resonant parts of trees—hollow trunks, dried branches, or planks created where a tree has broken during a storm. These rhythmical sounds ringing across the landscape function to establish territory and to attract mates, as many birds accomplish through vocalizing a song. I expect them to start drumming soon.

I adore this little bird. I love watching it curiously traverse the landscape searching for food. It uses stiff tail feathers to brace itself as it shuffles up and down a limb. It’s cool to watch it wrap its feet around a small branch as it moves out to the end. It always seems so friendly and approachable. This is a fun bird to watch and get to know.

Nature is an inexhaustible source of wonder. I look forward to seeing you out there.

See more of Bryan’s work here.


Downy Woodpecker Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.

Ehrlich, Paul R., et al. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds: Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Peterson, Roger Tory, et al. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. 4th ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Stokes, Donald W., et al. A Guide to Bird Behavior. 1st ed, vol. II, Little, Brown, 1983.