The smallest woodpeckers in North America, and well-known for their acrobatic mastery when feeding, downy woodpeckers are fascinating to watch on the most precariously hung backyard feeders. The most common woodpeckers to visit backyards, they are big fans of suet and peanuts, but what does their natural diet consist of? Keep reading to learn more.
Downy woodpeckers are omnivores - their diet is 75 percent insect-based, with the remaining 25 percent made up of fruit, seeds, and weeds, plus suet and nuts provided in backyard feeders. Males and females compete for food, and have different foraging techniques when looking for food.
Male downy woodpeckers tend to feed on the ground, while females are found in the lower branches of trees or on tree stumps, where they can be seen drumming on the wood and listening for tiny movement or vibrations under the bark’s surface to indicate the presence of ants or beetles.
Read on to find more about what a typical diet of a downy woodpecker includes, and for more in-depth information about the techniques that might be used during foraging at different times of the year.
A downy woodpecker drumming in the tree to forage insects
Around 75 percent of a downy woodpecker’s natural diet consists of insects. However, this is supplemented by a mixture of seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and food left out at backyard feeding stations.
Downy woodpeckers forage for wild fruits and their seeds, including those from sycamore, flowering dogwood, and oak trees and wild-growing sumac plants. Sunflower and safflower seeds are popular choices from backyard feeders, and nyjer seed will also be eaten if provided.
Downy woodpeckers are omnivores, with insects making up the largest share of their natural diet. A variety of insects are eaten, chiefly ants and wood-boring beetles. Caterpillars, larvae, gall wasps, moths, and mayflies are also eaten.
Downy woodpeckers create hollows in bark, dead wood, and tree branches in order to dig out any insects from beneath the surface. Their long barbed tongues produce a sticky mucus when feeding that enables them to easily capture and swallow any bugs they catch.
A Downy Woodpecker perched on a post
Downy woodpeckers are active foragers and spend a large proportion of the day looking for food. When they are feeding newly hatched chicks, they follow a demanding and frenzied feeding schedule, with several feeds required every hour between early morning and sunset.
After drumming on the bark of fallen trees and tree stumps with their long bills, downy woodpeckers then listen out for moving ants, termites and beetles. They also have a highly developed sense of smell, and can pick up the scent of formic acid, emitted by these bugs, and then know exactly where to strike for their next meal.
Competition at feeding sites has led to male and female downy woodpeckers employing different tactics to foraging for food, especially in winter. Males feed on the ground, where they seek out roots and branches that provide a steady source of ground-dwelling insects.
Females head up to the branches and trunks of trees, where they dig into the wood with their beaks, looking for insects living underneath the bark and in the foliage.
Downy woodpeckers are frequent visitors to backyard feeders and are not shy about feeding near to human habitation.
A male Downy Woodpecker foraging for food on the ground
Downy woodpeckers are diurnal and forage for food during daylight hours, most commonly in the morning and early evening. You will not hear a woodpecker drumming for food in the dark: they have poor night vision, and spend their nights roosting.
Outside of breeding season, it is not unusual to see downy woodpeckers feeding as part of a larger mixed-species flock of birds that may also include black-capped chickadees, cardinals, and finches.
Natural winter food preferences of foraging downy woodpeckers include acorns, fruits from poison ivy and Virginia creepers, and pine nuts.
Downy Woodpecker feeding from a bird feeder, during the winter
In summer months, downy woodpeckers follow a slightly different diet to their winter eating habits. They rely more on insects and bugs than on fruit and seeds, and can be seen (and heard) drumming on branches and fallen trees, before listening for movement underneath the bark or surface layer of wood.
Pest insects that represent a significant element of a downy woodpecker’s diet include ants, termites, corn earworms, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers.
Baby downy woodpeckers require a high-protein diet in the period immediately after hatching, and are brought a constant supply of insects and larvae by their parents. In the first few days after hatching, chicks are fed every few minutes, but this reduces to two to three times a day by the time they have fledged.
An adult Downy Woodpecker feeding a recently fledged chick
Downy woodpeckers can quickly become regular backyard visitors if suitable food and feeders are offered. Hopper, platform and cage-style suet feeders should be placed in quiet spots, as far as possible from where they may be disturbed by humans or other noise.
Natural environmental factors also play a part in attracting downy woodpeckers, so if your backyard has plenty of nearby tree cover, both deciduous and coniferous, as well as some dead or dying trees, then this is a good head start.
While downy woodpeckers’ preference is to build nests in tree cavities, they may occasionally take advantage of appropriately sized and located nest boxes.
Downy woodpeckers drink fresh water from backyard bird baths and also take water from fruit and berries. They will also take juice from broken overripe fruits and occasionally sap from trees. They have also been observed to drink from sugar water feeding sources left for hummingbirds.
A female Downy Woodpecker searching for insects on a tree branch
Downy woodpeckers are the most likely woodpeckers to visit your backyard bird feeders. They are particularly drawn to mesh feeders that contain suet and shelled peanuts, and will also take sunflower and safflower seeds, mealworms, and sycamore seed balls.
Although about 75 percent of a downy woodpecker’s diet consists of insects, they do also eat a variety of seeds, including black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds and safflower seeds.
Downy woodpeckers have been observed to drink sugar nectar that has been left out for hummingbirds. A downy woodpecker’s long tongue can fit into the tiny holes on a hummingbird feeder, so it can access the sweet substance with ease.
A downy woodpecker feeding from a hummingbird feeder
Peanuts and peanut butter are two favorite backyard foods for downy woodpeckers that may visit your garden feeders. Hulled peanuts in mesh or tube feeders, and chunky peanut butter, spread directly onto bark or branches of nearby trees, will also attract these inquisitive birds.
Fruit, such as berries, are a key component of a downy woodpecker’s diet. Seasonal fruits, such as blackberries, strawberries, cherries and grapes are popular, and oranges and apples will also be eaten. Downy woodpeckers will also take juice from overripe broken fruits on the ground.
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