Return to Main Page   Dakota Birder Blog    

Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens

Length: 6.5 - 7 inches Wingspan: 11 - 12 inches Seasonality: All Seasons
ID Keys: Small size, short stubby bill, black spots on white outer feathers of tail, relatively quiet call.  Males have a red patch on the back of their heads.

Downy Woodpecker - Dryobates pubescens The Downy is the smallest Woodpecker in North America.  It's found in forests and woodlands throughout the state, as well as residential areas and parks, They are one of the most common, and consistent, visitors to feeders, attending feeders at all times of the year.  During the winter, they are often found with mixed flocks including other species such as chickadees and nuthatches.  Note the very similar markings of the Hairy Woodpecker, which has a larger size and longer bill (see the "similar species" section below for identification tips).  A male is pictured to the right.  Females are similar, but don't have the red patch on the back of the head (see photos at bottom of the page).


Downy Woodpeckers can be found in a very wide array of habitats, where suitable trees are available for nesting cavities. They are primarily found in deciduous woodlands and forests, often around forest clearings and edges. In South Dakota, riparian areas with riparian forest cover are a favored habitats. They can be found in a number of settings established by humans, such as established suburban areas with older trees, parks, shelter belts, and farmstead wood lots.


Mostly insects. Also eats seeds and berries, as well as nuts and suet at feeders. 


Will forage at nearly any level of vegetation.  Due to it's small size, it can climb through smaller branches and twigs when looking for food than can many other woodpeckers. 


May through July. The nest of a Downy Woodpecker is a cavity in a tree, usually a dead deciduous tree or a dead tree branch. Both the male and the female help construct the nest cavity, with the end result a cavity that's generally between 8 and 12 inches deep. No material is added to the nesting site other than wood chips from the construction activity. The female lays between 3 and 6 eggs, and both parents help to incubate them.  When the eggs hatch, both parents help feed and tend to the young.  The young leave the nest after about 3 weeks.


Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers will "drum", a rapid drumming that's consistent in pace and generally quieter than that of some of their larger woodpecker relatives. A crisp pik note is often given as a contact or alarm call. Similar sharp pik notes are also often strung together in a rapid-fire chattering call, often heard during the breeding season.


Considered non migratory throughout their very extensive range.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Downy Woodpecker sightings

Similar Species:

 In South Dakota, there's one species that is often confused with a Downy Woodpecker, and another that also could cause an identification issue. Downy Woodpeckers are also similar to a few other woodpecker species that aren't normally found in South Dakota. The following are the species most likely to be confused with a Downy Woodpecker:

Hairy Woodpecker 1 - Leuconotopicus villosus Hairy Woodpecker 2 - Leuconotopicus villosus Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3 - Sphyrapicus varius Nuttall's Woodpecker - Picoides nuttallii
Hairy Woodpecker (male) Hairy Woodpecker (female) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male) Nuttall's Woodpecker (male)


Conservation Status:

Systematic surveys over the last few decades (Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey) show quite stable populations overall. They are found across a very broad geographic area, are very common in many parts of that range, and have very high population numbers overall.  The IUCN lists the Downy Woodpecker as a species of "Least Concern".

South Dakota "Hotspot":

Downy Woodpeckers are typically around in most of the state where there are woodlands and forests available to build nesting cavities. Established feeders are the best place to consistently see them, but wherever you have suburban areas with established trees, parks, forested riparian areas, woodlots, shelter belts, or other areas of substantial numbers of trees, there are likely some Downy Woodpeckers around.

Bird Feeders:

Downy Woodpeckers are often one of the most frequent and consistent visitors to feeders once a feeding location has been established and maintained over time. They will come for a variety of items, but their favorites are suet, peanut butter, black-oil sunflower seeds, and various nuts..

Further Information:

Photo Information:

November 7th, 2007 - Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Downy Woodpecker photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Downy Woodpecker - Dryobates pubescens - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common permanent resident throughout the state.

Additional Downy Woodpecker Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Downy Woodpecker 1 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 2 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 3 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 4 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 5 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 6 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 7 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 8 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 9 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 10 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 11 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 12 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 13 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 14 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 15 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 16 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 17 - Picoides pubescensDowny Woodpecker 18 - Picoides pubescens