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Gardening For Wildlife #47 Hurray for March, Downy Woodpeckers
March 03, 2008

A blessed week to you and a big

"Welcome New Readers".


March is here.

February left by leaving us another few inches of snow, putting out total close to 100 inches.

I know, I know.......

Some of you are laughing at that amount.

You may live in the Mountains, Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula where sometimes 3 and 4 times that amount is common.

Maybe you live in Maine or parts of Canada where winter lasts and lasts.

Still, since records have been kept, we have only had 100+ inches a winter only 5 times before this year.


All those old fashion winters as a child sure felt like hundreds of inches of snow.

It has actually been a pretty winter so far. Maybe because we always had a fresh shroud of snow to keep things bright and clean.

Oh well,

March came in like a lamb...................

Saturday and the first part of Sunday gave us some well deserved sunshine and some rain Sunday night and Monday morning.

The birds are getting more vocal, and do you notice some sparring going on.

I took a stroll in the deep wet snow Sunday afternoon.

In the woods I could hear Flickers, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Cardinals and other birds warming up for the coming season.

Yup, the clock is ticking.

Speaking of ticking clocks........................

Sunday March, 9 is the the beginning of daylight savings times.

I love it.

Keet and Ziggy the poodle pup have more friendly jousts these days, though Keet is showing signs of dominance right now ( I know that can change) especially at the food dish and when the Ziglet bothers her to much.

For new readers, Akita (Keet) is our 8lb. Chihuahua and Pomeranian mix and Ziggy is Karen's toy poodle pup that is now taller than Keet.

Some readers refer to them as our "fur kids." The title has some merit and sticks with us.

The first of the month is a good time to clean all your feeders and birdbaths.

I pick the first of the month, because it is a reminder and good habit for me to get into.

You may want to give it a whirl yourself.

Soak everything in a 10% beach and water solution for several minutes. Scrub, rinse and dry before you fill them again.

Now I really like using Oxy-boost (a brand name) or one of the oxygen bleach formulas.

The powder is all natural, earth friendly, wont harm birds and it wont degrade the material feeders are made of like bleach will do over time.

I also find that the foaming action gets crud out of cracks that bleach wont dissolve or I can't reach or scrub out.

The only draw back is it leaves a white film if not rinsed off. But even then, it is harmless to wildlife.

For me, I use a big plastic/rubber trash can and fill it about half full with hot water. Put a a cup or so of the powder in, put some feeders in and wait.

Do whatever works for you, but do clean your feeders and water sources.

The weather will go through some major transformations the next month or so and with this expect some major migrations.

It seems like some of these birds just reach their winter destantation only to turn around and come back.

I think of the Sandhill cranes as an example of that.

If you get a chance to watch these huge birds migrate by the thousands you must do so.

The Platte River in Nebraska Attracts hundreds of thousands of Sandill cranes every Spring and Fall.

This week's letter is a bit long as I share with you about Downy woodpeckers.

You may find a few interesting morsels on North America's smallest and most common Woody.


Downy Woopecker (Picides pupescens)

The Downy Woodpecker can be found in all of the contiguous United States except for the arid deserts of the southwest. Downys inhabit Alaska and most of Canada as well.

In the northern parts of the range migrate southward in the winter, but these migrations are somewhat irregular, depending on the available food supplies

Woodpeckers are a family of birds sharing several characteristics that separate them from other avian families. Most of the special features of their anatomy are associated with the ability to excavate wood.

The straight, chisel-shaped bill is formed of strong bone overlaid with a hard covering and is quite broad at the nostrils in order to spread the force of pecking.

Feathers over the nostrils keeps out pieces of wood and wood powder.

The pelvic bones are wide, allowing for attachment of muscles strong enough to move and hold the tail, which is so important for climbing.

The stiff tail acts as a support or third leg as the bird climbs and pounds away on the tree. Another special anatomical trait of woodpeckers is the long, barbed tongue that searches crevices and cracks for food.

The salivary glands produce a sticky, glue-like substance that coats the tongue and, along with the barbs, makes the tongue an efficient device for capturing insects.

The Downy Woodpecker. It is similar in appearance to the larger Hairy Woodpecker. Both are black and white with a broad white stripe down the back from the shoulders to the rump.

The wings are checkered in a black and white pattern that shows through on the wings' undersides, and the breast and flanks are white.

The crown of the head is black; cheeks and necks are adorned by black and white lines. The males of both species have a small scarlet patch, like a red pompon, at the back of the crown.

Although they look very much alike, the Downy and the Hairy Woodpecker have distinguishing characteristics.

The Downy's outer tail feathers are not all white as are the Hairy Woodpecker's, but are barred with black.

The Downy is about 6 inches long where as Hairy is 9 inches long from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.

The Downy's bill is shorter than its head, whereas the Hairy's bill is as long as or longer than its head length .

Male and female Downy Woodpeckers are basically the same size, though females have a longer tail and slightly shorter bill.

Like most woodpeckers, the Downy is a climber.

Its short legs and two toes pointing forwards and two backwards on each foot give the bird an excellent grip for climbing (don't forget the tail support).


Woodpeckers live where trees grow.

The Downy Woodpecker is at home in a variety of wooded areas across its range, in the northern mixed forests and in the deciduous (broad-leaved) forests farther south.

In woodlots and parklands, in orchards, and even in the parks and avenues of suburb, town and city.

It prefers places where broad-leaved trees, such as poplars, birches and ashes, let in the light among the evergreens.

Forest edges and areas around openings in the denser forests are also favored places. In the western part of its range it can be found in alder and willow growth.

The Downy shares these habitats with other kinds of woodpeckers, but there are differences in their selection of nest sites and in their choice of food.

Each species thus occupies its own niche in the environment.


Downy Woodpecker pair for life and often return to the same nesting area of approximately 2 acres every year of their adult life.

Here is the success to downy woodpeckers relationships........

Male and female Downys sometimes occupy separate sleeping holes in the trunks of trees, and they may even select the same sleeping holes they had excavated in a former season.

Okay, I'm kidding about relationships, but the will sleeping in separate holes is a fact.

As early as February or March a Downy Woodpecker pair indicate occupation of their nesting site by flying around patrolling it and by drumming short, fast tattoos with their bills on dry twigs or other resonant objects scattered around the territory.

Downys mate earlier in the South and enjoy 2 clutches.

The drumming serves as a means of communication between the members of the pair and informs other Downys of their occupation of the land.

During th e breeding season Downy Woodpeckers defend their territory against trespassers of their species.

Encounters with intruders result in hostile displays: the opponents parade in front of each other in threatening poses, bills gaping, wings raised and fully opened, the birds twisting and turning like small windmills.

The male engages the male trespassers and the female the females, while their respective partners look on. Usually the intruder is chased away or simply disappears.

After establishing their territory the Downy pair look for a suitable tree in which to excavate their nest cavity.

They are especially attracted to dead trees or stubs dotted with old holes from former nestings. They may start several holes in different trees before the final choice is made, usually by the female.

The entrance hole may be anywhere from 6 to 50 feet above the ground.

The pair require about two or three weeks to excavate their nest hole.

The male does most of the drilling. He spends nearly half of the daylight hours each day working on the hole in average sessions of about 20 minutes, resting and feeding in between.

First he chisels out the passage, making it just wide enough for himself and his mate to squeeze through.

He taps and digs out the walls of the cavity, widening and deepening the room inside and throwing the loose chips out over his shoulder.

When the hole is deep enough to allow him to turn around inside, he brings the chips out in his bill and scatters them with a shake of the head.

The female occupies herself flying around, feeding, and chasing intruders.

When the nest hole nears completion, she becomes more interested in it and begins to work on it diligently.

It is interesting, that she will disperse the wood chips elsewhere while he drops them right there for all to see.

The pair devotes most of their free time to courtship involving calling and drumming, pursuits and displays.

When the time is right, they mate (Cloacal kiss).

The female Downy Woodpecker usually lays four or five white eggs and occasionally six or seven. During the egg laying, male and female take turns guarding the nest by sitting in the doorway.

After incubation of the eggs starts, the birds take turns warming them during the day in shifts lasting from 15 to 30 minutes.

Most changeovers take place directly and immediately at the nest.

Here is a nice tidbit, the male remains on the eggs alone while the female sleeps elsewhere.

In this manner, the eggs are covered nearly all of the time during the Downy Woodpecker's 12-day incubation period.

The Young

When the young woodpeckers hatch, they are tiny helpless creatures, almost naked, sprawled at the bottom of the cavity.

For a few days the parents continue to brood the young as they did the eggs and occasionally bring them small insects for food.

As the nestlings grow, the parents gradually stop brooding and spend more time collecting food for their young.

When the parent arrives with food in the bill there is a swell in the nestlings' chippering noises from within the nest.

The parent dives head first into the cavity and touches the swollen corner of a nestling's mouth with its bill.

As the mouth springs open, the parent pushes the meal down the nestling's throat. While the nestling subsides, the parent picks the fecal sacks and flies away with it.

The nestlings are fed and their nest is kept clean until they are 17 or 18 days old.

When they are almost fully grown. They look like their parents, except that the crowns of the young males are tinted red or rust-red or pinkish, and those of the females are striped or dotted with white.

The young are now able to crawl up the walls of the cavity and take turns sitting in the doorway, looking out.

To meet the nestlings' increasing demands for food, the parents bring large meals about every three minutes.

Each of four nestlings is therefore fed four or five times in the hour.

As the time approaches for the young to leave the nest the parents slow down the feedings, making the nestlings livelier and hungrier.

Almost a day passes before the fledgling, now as large as its parents and spotlessly clean, pops out far enough to spread the untried wings.

Once outside it is able to fly quite a distance before it achieves a safe landing.

When the fledglings are all out, they hide among the green leaves in the tall trees and call for the parents to come and feed them.

Within a week they begin following the parents, begging for food with sharp calls and flapping wings.

At the age of three or four weeks the young birds are fully capable of looking after themselves. It is at this stage in the life cycle that mortality is greatest.


The adult birds begin to molt their worn and dirty plumage while the young are still in the nest.

The strong, central pair of tail feathers molt only after all the other tail feathers have been replaced.

This ensures that the woodpecker's climbing ability is not hampered during the molt period.

The complete molt takes about two months, during which time each bird keeps much to itself, resting and feeding.

When the molt is over in September, the Downy Woodpecker emerges with the white part of its fresh winter plumage showing a faintly yellow tinge that eventually is lost by wear.

The young Downy Woodpeckers also shed their juvenile plumages. Their molt starts in late summer and ends in full adult plumage.

Their crowns are jet black, and at the back of the head the young males wear the bright red spot of the adult.

Food and Feeding

In the spring and summer the Downy Woodpecker feeds on free-flying and hidden insect life, as it becomes available (Over the course of a year, insects are 40% to 50% of their diet).

After the young hatch, the need to select food suitable for the nestlings at various stages of growth and gradually to increase the speed of the feedings compels the Downy Woodpecker to seek larger and more easily caught prey, such as caterpillars, mayflies, and moths.

It also takes small wild fruits in season.

After the nesting season, the Downy Woodpecker resumes its specialized feeding habits.

It hunts down myriads of small insects and larvae that infest trees and lie hidden in cracks and crannies along branchlets, twigs, and down the trunk.

The Downy's small size enables it to hunt along the upper branches of trees, while the larger heavier woodpecker species concentrate on more solid areas such as the trunk.

During the winter a pair of Downy Woodpeckers may do a thorough job of ridding an infested tree of tiny scale insects.

With its sharp bill boring small round holes or prying open the insects' hiding places, the woodpecker fetches out its food with its long agile tongue.

Often the birds spend most of the daylight hours going over areas of good yield in the same trees, until they retire just before sunset, each to its own sleeping hole in the trunk of a tree.

The woodpecker's first response to danger is to use a tree trunk or branch as a shield.

Many a Downy Woodpecker has saved itself from the grasping talons of a hawk or the claws and bill of a shrike by dodging swiftly sideways behind the trunk of a tree.

Nestlings raised in holes are, of course, much safer than those in open nests.

The narrow entrance to the Downy Woodpecker's nest, hewn to size, protects both the adults and the young from practically all predators except snakes.

Even a squirrel, scratching and gnawing at the soft wood to get at the fledglings within, has little chance of getting past the watchful defender sitting in the passage way.

But, if a Downy is caught at night behind a rotting doorway by some tree-climbing maraumarauders fate is sealed.

From a human viewpoint, few wild birds have a record as irreproachable as that of the Downy Woodpecker.

Its sober ways and its pest-killing activities merit our respect and attention.

To keep these special birds around offer habitat, suets, peanuts, sunflowers etc. High energy food for high energy birds.

Sometimes Downys will accept our nest boxes if the situation is right.

I know, This was one long letter.

Because these birds are so important as insect eaters, I felt a full report was needed needed.

All of God's creatures are unique ansd serve a special in life.

Say, if you are interested in growing gourds or making gourd birdhouses these web-pages are sure to help you.

Well, it's time to fly for now.

"Judy Garland" once said "Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else."

That means we jump out of bed and thank God for being who you are.

You are a unique, one of a kind person with unique gifts and talents.

One of those talents is your unique smile.

First thing you do is thank our Lord and share a smile with him. Then be sure to share your smile with others

And make it your best smile.

Until next time.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers. Better yet, have them sign up so they can recieve their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

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