The Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is the most frequently encountered North American Woodpecker - and also the smallest. These widespread birds occur from Alaska in the north, across Canada, and most of the Lower 48.
Downy Woodpeckers are regular visitors to established backyards and are no strangers to bird feeders. Have you ever wondered where and how they nest?
Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. They usually excavate their own nests on the underside of sloping dead tree limbs well above the ground. Both parents work together to incubate and raise their four to six young over about four weeks.
Both Downy Woodpecker partners work together to excavate the nest, which can take several days of hard work and plenty of searching to find the perfect spot.
They usually build a new nest each year, but they also will use specially designed nest boxes where good nesting trees are scarce.
This article unpacks the nesting behavior of the Downy Woodpecker. Read along to learn where, when, and how these busy American birds raise their chicks.
Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters
Downy Woodpeckers do not build a typical bird's nest. Instead, they excavate a nest chamber in decaying tree wood. These chambers stand up well to the elements and make a cozy home for the growing chicks.
Read on to learn about where Downy Woodpeckers build their nests
Downy Woodpeckers excavate a nest cavity in a tree trunk or a broken limb with a soft, heartwood core. They prefer to excavate their nests on the underside of a leaning branch. This way, the nest is entered from below, which prevents flooding.
Choosing a nest site can take some time, and each parent must agree on the location before serious excavation begins. Nevertheless, these hard-working birds often make a few false starts before the final choice is made.
Downy Woodpeckers only use their nests for a single breeding season. A pair will select a new nest site each year.
Downy Woodpeckers will certainly nest in backyards with suitable trees for nest excavation.
Female Downy Woodpecker outside of the nesting hole
Downy Woodpeckers prefer to excavate their own nest chambers, although they will use an artificial nest box with the right size and shape.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends a 14 - 20 inch deep nest box with a 1 1/4 inch diameter entrance. The nest box should be mounted at least six feet above the ground.
Downy Woodpeckers excavate their nests in many species of coniferous and deciduous trees. Different trees are favored across their wide distribution, even if they are not the most dominant tree in their territory.
Downy Woodpeckers build their nests in the following tree species:
Most Downy Woodpecker nests are excavated 15 to 45 feet (5 - 13.5 m) above the ground, although they will also nest as low as 3 feet (1 m). The average height of their nests varies from area to area.
Downy Woodpecker bringing back a flying insect to feed chicks in the nest
Downy Woodpecker nests are tough to spot because they don’t resemble the typical platform or cup-shaped nest most songbirds build. Their nest cavities are hidden within the protection of a tree trunk or limb. Keep reading to learn more about their size and shape.
From the outside, a Downy Woodpecker nest looks like a small, circular hole. In fact, the entrance is so small that the female can find it pretty tough to enter and exit!
The entrance to a Downy Woodpecker nest cavity measures about 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 - 3.8 cm) across. The nest extends down about 6 to 12 inches (15 - 30 cm), with a diameter of about 6 inches (15 cm) at the bottom.
Downy Woodpecker chick peeking out of the nest hole
Downy Woodpecker nesting phenology varies regionally and from north to south. Some nesting pairs also take longer or shorter to complete the excavation of the nest and lay their eggs. Read on to learn more about the timing of Downy Woodpecker nesting.
Downy Woodpeckers nest from late fall to late summer, with the timing varying by latitude. They start much earlier in the southern states where nesting conditions are already suitable at the start of spring.
Nest excavation begins about two weeks before egg laying, and they usually lay their eggs within ten days of completing the nest.
Downy Woodpecker nesting can take about two months from the start of nest construction until the time the chicks fledge. Even then, their job is not entirely done because the juvenile birds rely on their parents for a further three weeks or so.
Let’s take a closer look at the typical Downy Woodpecker nesting sequence:
Downy Woodpeckers lay their eggs in different months depending on the climate in their area. They lay their eggs as early as April in the south, but conditions might not be suitable until late June in New York.
Downy Woodpecker poking its head out nesting cavity
Downy Woodpeckers don’t construct their nests in the typical bird fashion of collecting and arranging materials. They are equipped perfectly for pecking out their own nesting cavities instead. Continue reading to learn more about how they create the perfect home for their growing chicks.
Downy Woodpeckers excavate their nests using their short, sharp bills. Their pecking skills also come in handy when excavating roosting cavities and searching for their favorite food - wood-boring beetle larvae.
Downy Woodpeckers excavate their nest chamber into the soft wood of a dead tree or a dead limb on a living tree. They do not add any external materials to their nests, but they will use the wood chips from the excavation to line the nest chamber and provide a soft and insulating layer for the eggs, chicks, and parent birds.
Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers work together to excavate the nest. Digging out such a deep cavity is hard work, even for such accomplished excavators, and the pair take shifts to lighten the load.
Downy Woodpecker excavating a cavity in a tree for nesting
Few people can say they have seen Downy Woodpecker eggs because they are hidden so well in the nest cavity. Here’s what they look like:
Downy Woodpeckers lay small, glossy white eggs. Each egg measure approximately 0.75 x 0.6 inches (19 x 15 mm) on average.
Downy Woodpeckers usually lay between four and six eggs, although they can lay clutches of two to eight.
The male Downy Woodpecker incubates the eggs every night and for part of the day. He develops a large incubation patch of bare skin to assist in transferring his body heat to the developing eggs.
Downy Woodpecker working hard on construction of the nesting hole
Baby Downy Woodpeckers hatch as tiny, helpless chicks with closed eyes and no feathers. They weigh less than 2 grams but grow fast and may double their weight on the first day!
Both parents work together to raise the babies, although the male does most of the brooding, feeding, and fecal sac removal.
Baby Downy Woodpeckers develop rapidly and are ready to fledge the nest about 18 days after hatching. They are not fully independent yet and will stay near their parents for a few more weeks as they learn to forage and fend for themselves.
Downy Woodpeckers have a single brood per year. They may attempt a second brood if the first fails for some reason.
Downy Woodpecker fledgling being fed by its father
Downy woodpeckers abandon their nest after their chicks have fledged. They will excavate a new nest chamber at the start of the next breeding season.
Downy Woodpeckers do not nest on the ground, but you might find their nests just three feet up in some cases. Most nests are found in trees above fifteen feet, however.
The male Downy Woodpecker incubates, broods, and roosts with the chicks in the nest cavity each night. He will do this from the day the female lays the eggs until the young fledge the nest.
Downy Woodpeckers prefer to nest in the dead trunks and limbs of trees. They may well build their nests in your backyard if you have a suitable tree. Some pairs also use purpose-built nest boxes.
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