Female Downy Woodpeckers (Identification Guide: Male vs Female)

The downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is the smallest of the North American woodpeckers and can be seen across most of the United States and Canada. These busy birds are common in a variety of woody habitats and are no strangers to backyards.

Downy woodpeckers do not migrate, so you can see them throughout the year in suitable habitats. If you have a backyard bird feeder, you might well be visited by these birds, especially if you put out suet.

The easiest way to tell female downy woodpeckers from males is to look out for a red spot on the back of the head. This red nape bar is absent in females. Female downy woodpeckers are also more likely to be seen foraging for insects on the trunks of trees and other major branches.

Apart from the absence of the red nape bar, there are important behavioral clues that can help birdwatchers distinguish female downy woodpeckers from males.

Read on to learn more interesting facts and useful methods for identifying female downy woodpeckers out in the field.

Female Downy Woodpecker perched on a branch

Female Downy Woodpecker perched on a branch

How can you tell if a downy woodpecker is male or female?

Male downy woodpeckers have a small red patch on the back of their heads. This feature is absent in female downy woodpeckers who have purely black and white heads.

Interestingly, this difference between males and females can be seen in many different species of woodpecker all over the world.

The absence or presence of a red nape bar is a great way to tell if you are looking at a male or female downy woodpecker, but there are other clues to look out for too. Read on to learn more!

Female downy woodpecker 1

Female Downy Woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

What does a female downy woodpecker look like?

The female downy woodpecker is a striking little black and white bird. They are about the size of a sparrow, with a body length of 5.5-6.7 inches, and weigh in at just under an ounce (28g) on average.

Female downy woodpeckers have all white underparts, and mostly black wings and upperparts. The wings are covered in white spots, and the upper surface of the tail is black with white outer tail feathers (rectrices). If you get a close look, you will notice some black spots on these white feathers.

These birds have a distinctive white marking that runs down the center of their back.

Female downy woodpeckers have a black crown patch and a broad black stripe from their eyes to the back of the head. They also have a finer black stripe that runs from their short, sharp bill to their black shoulders.

Female Downy Woodpecker eating wild berries

Female Downy Woodpecker eating wild berries

Distinguishing female downy woodpeckers from similar species

The female downy woodpecker is quite easily confused with other woodpeckers from the Dryobates genus, especially where their distributions overlap. Read on to learn how to tell female downy woodpeckers from some similar species.

  • The hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) overlaps with the downy woodpecker across much of the United States and Canada. This is probably the bird that is most likely to be confused with the female downy woodpecker. Hairy woodpeckers are much larger than downy woodpeckers and have a proportionately much larger bill. The outer tail feathers of the downy woodpecker are also spotted in black, while they are pure white in the hairy woodpecker.

    Check out this article for a more in-depth look at the difference between hairy and downy woodpeckers
  • Nuttall’s woodpecker (Dryobates nuttallii) overlaps with the downy woodpecker in California. This species has black and white barring across the back without the large white patch. Its head is also more boldly marked with less white plumage.
  • The Ladder-backed woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris) overlaps with the downy woodpecker in states like Colorado and northern Texas. This species has clearly defined black and white stripes across the back.
  • Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Dryobates borealis) overlap with the downy woodpecker in southeastern states from Eastern Texas through Florida and north to Virginia. This species looks very similar but lacks the large white back patch and has more white on the side of the face.
  • The yellow-bellied, Williamson’s, and red-naped sapsuckers are also superficially similar to the downy woodpecker female, but these birds are all darker in appearance, especially when the underparts are visible.
Male (left) and female (right) pair of downy woodpeckers at a feeder together

Male (left) and female (right) pair of downy woodpeckers at a feeder together

Do female downy woodpeckers have red?

Adult female downy woodpeckers do not have any red coloration. Their plumage is only black and white. Some juvenile females will have some reddish plumage on the forehead (rather than the nape), however.

What is a female downy woodpecker called?

There is no specific name for female downy woodpeckers. The word hen can be used to describe females of most types of birds, including woodpeckers.

Female Downy Woodpecker eating sunflower seeds

Female Downy Woodpecker eating sunflower seeds

Are female downy woodpeckers bigger than males?

Female downy woodpeckers are much the same size as males. Studies have shown that female downy woodpeckers are slightly larger than males in some areas but slightly smaller in others. Interestingly, both males and females are larger in the north of their range than they are in the south.

There are some physical differences between the sexes, but these are not going to be of much use to birdwatchers in the field. Female downy woodpeckers have longer wings than males across most of America, and they also have longer tails.

Now that you know which physical clues to look out for, let’s take a look at some key behavioral differences between female and male downy woodpeckers.

Female Downy Woodpecker on a tree

Female Downy Woodpecker on a tree

Behavior differences

Downy woodpeckers have a fascinating technique for limiting competition for food between the sexes. Female downy woodpeckers forage for food on the larger branches and main trunk of trees while males forage on the ground and smaller limbs. This is a great way to tell males from females in low light or when you don’t have your binoculars handy.

There are some minor behavioral differences when it comes to territorial conflict too. Females usually only show territorial aggression towards other females, and they show more territorial aggression than males, at least in some areas.

Singing and calls

Both sexes of downy woodpeckers produce a range of vocalizations and also drum against trees. Males produce their typical whinnying call more often while excavating a nest, but otherwise, there is no notable difference between the sexes.

Female Downy Woodpecker perched on a branch during the winter

Female Downy Woodpecker perched on a branch during the winter

Nesting and feeding

Both male and female downy woodpeckers work together to excavate a nest. They also both seek out nest sites, although the female makes the final selection more frequently than the male.

Once the nest is complete and eggs have been laid, the female downy woodpecker shares the responsibility of incubating and brooding during the day. Her partner takes all the responsibility during the night. In some areas, female downy woodpeckers feed the chicks less frequently, and also spend less time doing so than males.

Can female downy woodpeckers raise young alone?

It is pretty unlikely that female downy woodpeckers would succeed in raising young alone. The male bird has been recorded feeding the chicks more often than the female, and he is also responsible for incubating and brooding at night, so his contribution to raising the young is very significant!

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