NPS Photo: Hugh Crandall, Mar-1968
If a Downy Woodpecker survives the winter, it will prepare for nesting the spring following its birth. Downy Woodpeckers nest in cavities of trees without any significant lining within. Broods generally contain 3-6 eggs, though likely, only one or two of the young will survive to the next year. After 12 days of incubation, the helpless young hatch. Unlike humans, which take years to raise, the young leave the nest only three weeks after birth. Between hatching and fledging, the parents must bring their rapidly growing young plenty of food, a job which taxes the parents severely. In most areas, parents only raise one brood per year, though there is evidence that they may raise two in the southern portions of their range, where food is available for a longer time during the spring and summer.
Downy Woodpeckers prefer open deciduous forests, although they frequent a variety of habitats including parks and back yards. While some bird species have been negatively impacted by the fragmentation of forests or other habitat due to suburban sprawl and rural development, Downy Woodpeckers seem to be unaffected and even thrive in such areas.
Drumming, one of the unique characteristics of woodpeckers, is both functional and a way to defend territory. While drumming is needed to create a nesting cavity or find insects under heavy bark, male woodpeckers also drum to establish a territory and maintain dominance afterwards.
Woodpeckers have a shock-absorbing system in their heads that prevents their brains from slamming into their skull. Additionally, their skulls are heavier than most birds’ to withstand the repeated impact.
The Downy consumes enormous numbers of insects. More than 75 percent of the bird’s diet consists of insects, a large portion of which include wood-boring beetles and other insects that affect the economy. For example, one study has shown that Downy Woodpeckers reduced the overwintering population of codling moths, a major threat to apple orchards and other fruit-growing operations, by 52 percent. This said, timber harvest and fruit production are not concerns within ShenandoahNational Park. However, other studies have shown that Downys help suppress bark beetle infestations. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Downy Woodpecker in eastern North America fed extensively on the elm bark beetle, which was responsible for dispersing Dutch elm disease. Infestations of non-native insects and disease are a significant concern at the park.
Loss of forested areas adjacent to the park seems to be the most significant issue for Downy Woodpeckers although they seem to be quite adaptable and are able to survive in non-forested areas.
Sources and Additional Information
All about Birds - “Downy Woodpecker” - Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Natureworks - “Downy Woodpecker” – New Hampshire Public Television
Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter - PatuxentWildlifeResearchCenter
Longevity Records of North American Birds - USGSPatuxentWildlifeResearchCenter
Did You Know?
From 1933 to 1942 an estimated 10,000 boys and young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps planted hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs, and native plants in Shenandoah National Park. Many of these were grown in three CCC plant nurseries from seeds collected within the park. More...