When people think of this group of birds, they think of birds with large sharp beaks, bright red heads, and loud hammering. Sometimes, even a certain cartoon character with a comical catchphrase comes to mind. This species, however, is a compact bird with a petite beak and red spot, and with less loud hammering and more subtle tapping.
March’s bird of the month is the Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)!!!!
Downy woodpeckers (6.75″ long; 12″ wing span; 0.95 oz) are the smallest woodpeckers in North America. This bird has a large white patch on the back and mostly unmarked whitish flanks to distinguish them from other woodpeckers (except the Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus, which is larger in general). The males have a red spot on the back of the head. Woodpeckers have neat feet, with two toes facing forward and two facing backwards which helps them grip the bark of trees easier and is called zygodactal feet. This allows them to hang upside down and zig-zag across the trunks and branches of trees. Because of their small size, they can also balance on thinner stalks and twigs, and are often seen at suet feeders in your backyard.
Their main food source on insects and larvae on plants and in the bark of trees. Interestingly, they not only use their beaks to dig into bark for food, but they also use their beaks to ‘drum’ as a communication method. The downy woodpecker’s drum is a slow rhythmic sound, with many drums in a quick sequence (9-16 drums per minute). Like most woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers nest in tree cavities they excavate themselves. Once a woodpecker is done with that cavity, dozens of other animals will use it. Therefore, they are a vital component of a healthy habitat, and keeping stable and safe dead trees standing helps the local wildlife.
They are not very common here, but look on the old trees up on the Mesa and Pocket Wetland at Bolsa Chica to find them. They are not migratory, so you can find these birds throughout the year. So next time you are out wandering around the Pocket Wetland, look up and you might just see this petite woodpecker pecking away!
Learn more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained
New to birding? Check out this beginner’s guide to birding!
Photo: Jay Spring