Small black and white bird with a short, needle-like beak. Males have a red patch on the back of their head.
Hopping up and down trees in woodlots, tapping away.
Occasionally confused with:
The hairy woodpecker, which is bigger and has a bill that's as long as its head is wide.
About three quarters of its diet is bugs.
It's easy to mix up the downy woodpecker with other creatures.
I often confuse them with squirrels because of their sounds. All too often I've looked in search of a squirrel going "chip chip!" only to instead find a black-and-white birdie making those noises as it climbs along a tree.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in North America, says local birder Alan Hingston, and look very similar to the hairy and pileated ones. All three can be recognized for their black and white feathers and (in the case of males) the red patch on the backs of their heads.
The pileated is the one that's the size of a crow, Hingston says, so you're unlikely to mistake it for the chickadee-sized downy.
Bird guides say that the hairy is bigger than the downy, and has hairy white feathers on its back instead of down-like ones, but these subtle differences can be hard for beginners to spot.
"The best feature I find is to look at their bills," Hingston says. The downy has a small, needle-like bill that can fit into small crevasses to look for bugs. The hairy has a massive, chisel-like one that's as long as its head is wide.
There were about five times as many downys as there were hairys in the last St. Albert Christmas Bird Count. "If you have a woodpecker in your yard in St. Albert," Hingston says, "there's a pretty good chance it's a downy woodpecker and not a hairy."
You'll typically spot downy woodpeckers scurrying up and down trees, Hingston says, tap-tapping away in search of bugs under the bark. When they find bugs, expect them to start chipping away at the tree to get at them.
Around this time of year, you might also hear them drumming jackhammer-style against a tree in order to mark out territory. (They're actually pretty quiet when they're digging into a tree, reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)
Downys have several interesting adaptations, reports Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum. First, they have an exceptionally long tongue – so long that its base actually splits in two and wraps around the skull to the nostrils – that they can flick out to lick up bugs. Barbs and sticky spit on the tongue also help.
"They have a third foot," he continues, "and it's their tail." By using their stiff tails as a prop, these birds are able to hop up and down trees with ease. Sharp claws and a two-toes forward, two-toes-back foot design also help them keep their grip.
And they may even be mimics. "It's believed that the downy is mimicking the hairy," says Hudon, citing recent research, and uses its similar looks to trick the bigger hairy into not beating it up.
Like most woodpeckers, Hudon says, the downy has spongy bone in its skull to protect its brain when it whacks at a tree. Its beak bone also runs underneath its skull to keep the shock of impact away from its grey matter.
Around May, Hudon says, expect downys to pair up and take turns digging a nest inside a dead or dying tree. If rival mates meet up, they'll spread their wings threateningly and whip their beaks about "as if duelling with an invisible foe with a sword."
Don't worry if you see one of these fellows digging into a tree, says Jaynne Carre, co-owner of the Wildbird General Store. Unlike sapsuckers, these birds favour trees that are already dead or dying, and won't harm them through their digging.
Downys are quite perky, Carre says, and love to eat suet, peanuts and sunflower seeds. "They love water," she adds, so a heated birdbath can draw them too. They seem to favour deciduous trees, so try placing your feeders on them.
Downys are a gardener's friend, Hingston says, since they eat so many of the bugs that plague our plants. Foresters need to take care to leave some dead wood around for them to live in, though, lest they be driven out of forest and home.
So next time you're in the woods and you hear a "chip chip!" or a "brrrrt," look up – you might see one of nature's tiniest jackhammers at work.