Downy Woodpeckers

It’s a peaceful Monday in our backyard, cool breeze, and blue skies. The bluebirds fledged, and now my focus is on these little downy snaglets! ( Snaglets was coined by my friend, Barbara and will be used by us from now on in reference to woodpecker chicks)

Young female downy woodpecker | Photo by Alice Mary Herden

It was interesting to see the pair take turns excavating a hole into a perfect circle in this well-used snag. The first documented signs of these downy woodpeckers excavating their nest was during the latter part of March, but they possibly started earlier.

So, how do they find the right snag? How do they know where to strike first to begin excavation? Do they all excavate their nest facing the same direction- towards the north, towards the south, east, or west? How do these birds measure the circumference, radius, and diameter? And if you ever noticed, it’s a pretty darn perfect circle! I can’t even draw a circle that perfect!

Of course, the diameter of the hole is different for each woodpecker. Downy, which is the smallest of the woodpecker family, excavates smaller holes, just enough for them to enter and exit. As the largest of the woodpeckers, the pileated, of course, has a larger hole to accompany its size. 

Downy Woodpecker | Photo by Alice Mary Herden

Have you ever noticed how the woodpecker would sway from side to side? Perhaps this behavior of ‘eyeing up’ is the way woodpeckers use to measure the diameter. 

Natural instincts – inherited and passed down from generation to generation, how a bird knows how to build a nest has been under debate for decades. Is this knowledge instinctual or not, and research into the nest-building behavior is still a very much uncharted question. 

During my observation, I feel that it may be a little bit of many things. Natural instincts, training, observation, and practice. In my opinion, I think birds have to be visual learners, but I am far from an avian expert.

While I was focusing more on the eastern bluebirds, sometime during the mid part of April, she laid her eggs, and towards the end of April to – the beginning of May, they hatched and the parents were feeding. 

What are they feeding their chicks? Just as I pondered that question for the bluebirds, the same question arose with the woodpeckers. Do downy woodpeckers feed their chicks the same insects as the bluebirds? The answer is no, but also there is a time or two when they do.

The amount in between feedings is roughly the same, around 2 to 15 minutes, but what they feed their young is larvae- possibly Twig Ant larvae.

So it wasn’t long for them to hatch and fledge and I couldn’t be sure of how many eggs she laid, but I do know there was at least one boy and one girl. 

On May 8 I noticed the father acted differently. He would feed the male and go to the Chinaberry tree in the lot next to us, it wasn’t more than 20 feet away, and I could hear a slight call encouraging the youngster to fly over. I had this gut feeling and I knew it was time for them to leave the nest. So it must have been the day after he did fledge leaving his sister behind. Unfortunately, I wasn’t home to see her leave the nest either. 

Overall it again was a great experience to be able to have this opportunity and be fortunate enough to have my husband leave this perfect snag for these downy woodpeckers to raise a family, not once but twice.

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