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I couldn't help but hear the soft tap, tap, taping sound coming from high up in the old cottonwood. The tree had never quite recovered from last spring's storm that raked the area with near hurricane force winds. Large branches still hung on precariously at right angles where they'd snapped and bent to the south. On closer look, I could see a small woodpecker inching up one of the dead limbs, chiseling bits and pieces of wood into the air as it moved. As I moved around one side of the tree to get a better look, it moved to the other and peeked back to see if the coast was clear or I was still there. We played peek-a-boo for a while until it tired of the game and flew across the street to a decaying limb of another storm victim.
The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is a member of the Family Picidae and the "mighty mite" of the woodpecker world in North America. It's found from Alaska and Canada to the southern United States but avoids the desert country of the Southwest and doesn't range into Mexico. They're permanent residents here in our post oak woodlands of North Texas. You're just as likely to see one in town as out in the country, anywhere there's deciduous trees they can hammer out a living on.
Other than their small 6 ¾ to 7 inch length, downies can be best identified by their white-spotted black wings, white back and underparts, and small black pointed bill. Their three outermost tail feathers are white with black spots or bars and males have a small red spot on the back of their head. It would take about 16 of them to make a pound. A similar species, the 8 to 10 inch hairy woodpecker (P. villosus), has a longer bill, black shoulders and its outermost tail feathers are entirely white. Another small species is the ladder-backed woodpecker (P. scalaris) which has black and white barring on its back, wings and underparts and males have a red crown. When in doubt, use binoculars and hope they hold still long enough for you to thumb through your bird field guide to figure out who's who. Good luck!
Out of necessity, woodpeckers are hard-headed with thick skull bones; otherwise they'd addle their brain with all their jack-hammering. They literally have part of their tongue on top of their head since its bony roots (hyoid apparatus) wrap around the cranium and anchor at the base of the bill which allows for greater tongue extension than in other birds. The downie can extend its barbed tongue a couple of inches from the tip of the bill to help extract reluctant larvae from excavated holes or insects from beneath loose bark. A covering of feathers over their nostrils prevent inhalation of wood debris and dust during excavations. To keep sawdust from getting into their eyes, they close them just before the bill hits the wood. With two toes pointing forward and two backward (zygodactyl), they can easily cling to the side of trees. Stiff tail feathers are used sorta like a camp stool to add support while woodpeck'en. They're able to feed out onto the tips of small limbs where other larger species of woodpeckers can't, often hanging upside down to get at hidden small insects. Although insects and their larvae make up 75-85% of their diet, they'll also eat fruits, nuts, berries, seeds, sap, spiders and snails. Downy woodpeckers will come to backyard bird feeders and have a craving for suet and peanut butter during the winter.
Drumming, that incessant racket woodpeckers make by banging their bill on dead trees, telephone poles or other resonating objects is their way of communicating. The pattern is unique to different species. It can mean "I'm tall, dark and handsome, so why don't you come on over and see me sometime", "no trespassing - stay away", or "is there anyone else like me out there." For downy woodpeckers, it's an unbroken rapid roll that last about 2 seconds. Other vocalizations used by both sexes include a soft pink and a rapid descending whinny.
Downy woodpeckers construct cavities in living or dead trees for nesting. The cavity is drilled 8-12 inches into the tree through a 1 ¼ inch entrance hole located 15-30 feet above the ground. Lichens are often used to camouflage the entrance, and wood chips are used to line the nest. She'll lay 3-7 white eggs that hatch in 12 days. Both sexes help with incubation duties, but the male usually has the night shift. When not sitting on the nest, the other parent sits in the entrance to guard the nest. Young fledge in about 25 days, but insist on being fed by the parents for a while longer before going off to do their own drilling and drumming. Other cavities may be drilled for roosting during the year, often in old dead standing trees (snags).
Since downy woodpeckers drill new cavities each year, many other bird species such as eastern bluebirds and tree swallows benefit from their old "home-sweet-homes" unless a starling, flying squirrel or snake moves in. This is another example of the interrelationship and dependency that many wildlife species have for each other, where even the littlest can be important.
Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!