Sunday, 16 December 2012

Dauntless Downy Woodpecker

At our feeders nestled in the woods, 5 species of woodpeckers have been observed dining on suet, and occasionally on sunflower seeds and peanuts. In order of appearance from least to most common, those woodpeckers are: Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted form), Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On very rare occasions I will see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on our property, but they have never come to the feeders.

As you might imagine, the least common visitors get the biggest hoots and hollers from me, and are most likely to find themselves in the cross-hairs of my camera lens. This is unfair to the more common visitors, such as the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. As I was looking for photos to illustrate this post, I noticed that I don't have very many photos of Downy Woodpeckers, and the ones that I do have all look virtually the same.

Yup, that's a male Downy Woodpecker clinging to the suet cage. We can tell that it's a male by the little note of red on the back of his head; female Downies have no red on their head.

While I may not jump up and down every time I see a Downy Woodpecker, I certainly do appreciate each appearance they make. They are easily visible year-round, and the parents will bring their begging fledges to our suet feeders once they are old enough to leave the safety of the nest. One time, about 5 years ago, they nested in a snag just above our driveway, and we were alerted to said nest by the incessant begging of the babies within. It took a few days to figure out where this high-pitched squeaking, reminiscent of a mouse with a megaphone, was coming from, and I was happy to learn that it was a clutch of successfully hatched wee Downies.

Since woodpeckers aren't songbirds, we don't really think of them making much noise except for pecking and drumming with their bills on trees or fence posts. They do emit a number of vocalizations, though. Downies make a loud "pick!" sound as well as a whinnying-type of call that descends in pitch at the end. They also make some other squeaky and churring calls, especially when several birds are in close proximity to each other. The Downy population in our woods has slowly been on the rise since I started counting them for Project FeederWatch seven years ago. At first we would only see 1 or 2 Downies at a time, but now it is common to have at least 4 within view at once. I know there are more of them around than that, but keeping them all in sight at one time is tricky! When they are not perched on a feeder, they are in constant motion, hitching up and down the trees in search of bugs in and under the bark, and during the winter it seems like they are constantly bickering, harassing each other, and shooing each other away.

A Downy at the homemade bird dough bowl, watching someone else fly by. Perhaps another Downy?

This year I have noticed an interesting trend among my Downies. Normally when I step outside to refill the feeders, or just to have a look around on the deck, all the birds scatter except for the fearless Carolina Chickadees. Now the Downies are joining the ranks as the next species to be unperturbed by my presence. I can stand right next to the suet feeders with a Downy at arm's length, munching away like it doesn't even see me. Yet another bird whose trust I have presumably earned. I feel mighty honored to stand so close to these fantastic creatures.


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