Friday, September 13, 2013

Downy Woodpecker

       Leaning back to admire her work a Downy Woodpecker is making a home for herself.

I found her chiseling on a decayed limb of an otherwise healthy box elder tree.  Quite intent, with single-minded determination, she paid close attention to her work, while ignoring me standing below.  She hammered hard and fast, only stopping for the necessary safety checks of her surroundings. 
Dead and dying trees are essential to Downy Woodpeckers in two very important ways…food and shelter.

A male Downy Woodpecker was hanging around outside, too.  I mean that literally, hanging upside down from a branch…downies like to do that. He wasn’t helping her presently, but it is known that both sexes share in the nest building task.

The soft and spongy wood of dying trees make it possible for the Downy Woodpecker to accomplish this head-banging work. It was late August, too late for nesting, so this could be a shelter for winter or a place to raise next year's brood. It was still quite cramped, so it took some effort on her part to chisel overhead.
She hammered away and the chips flew.  She'd deal with the pile of accumulating debris, too.  One beak full of chips at a time was discarded overboard. 
When completed, the cavity will be   6-12 inches deep and enlarged at the bottom for incubating the eggs. Excavation should take 
7-21 days. A few wood chips will remain to serve as a nest lining where 3-8 plain white eggs will lie.

Downies are common, widespread and year-round residents here in Wisconsin.  Downies feed on the insects that hide in tree bark along with berries and seeds, but they are also quick to take advantage of whatever you set out for them. 
A nut something suet blend is a preferred choice.

You’ll find Downy Woodpeckers foraging in the trees throughout the winter.  Hammering and prying bark loose, upside down or sideways, they balance themselves on stiff tail feathers propped against the tree.

The sexes look alike in black and white and spots and stripes, but the male displays a red patch on the back of his head.

REMINDER:  Click on any picture to enlarge.

Don’t be overly anxious to remove dead limbs from your trees.  Besides providing nest sites, dying trees attracts all sorts of invertebrate and insect life that woodpeckers and other birds need to feed  their young.

It is not by accident that her nest is placed on the downside of a limb either.  Spring rains are less likely to accumulate in this cavity; a squirrel may be less likely to discover it and snakes, too, must be avoided. Nest construction is well underway now and the accommodations look adequate. If this site is preferred next year, I will be happy to report again on the results. 


Credit: Sibley, Guide to Birds

Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds