Short bill, black marks on white outer tail feathers. Male. Note: red on hindcrown.
  • Short bill, black marks on white outer tail feathers. Male. Note: red on hindcrown.
  • Female. Note: lacks red nape of male.

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Downy Woodpecker

Picoides pubescens
Most birds in this group are adapted for climbing and perching in trees and range widely in size. The feet of most species have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back, a special adaptation for trunk-climbing known as a zygodactyl arrangement. The order includes families as diverse as the puffbirds and the toucans, but only the woodpecker family is found in Washington:
Woodpeckers have many adaptations that allow them to perch upright against tree trunks and feed on insects under the bark or within the wood of the tree itself. Further specialization has produced many aberrant forms with different behavior and feeding habits. Most use their strong claws and stiff tail feathers to brace themselves against tree trunks as they climb. The specially adapted skulls of woodpeckers allow them to pound hard on tree trunks to excavate nesting and roosting cavities, to find food, and to communicate and attract mates. A special arrangement of bones and elastic tissues allows woodpeckers to extend their long tongues and extract insect prey from the holes they chisel with their strong, sharp beaks. The principal food of most woodpeckers is insects, especially the larvae of wood-boring beetles. A few woodpeckers feed on ants, nuts, or flying insects. Many also take a small amount of fruit. Most woodpeckers have rounded wings and an undulating flight pattern. The plumage of most is some combination of black and white, though brown is not uncommon. Many, especially males, have small patches of red or yellow on their heads. Although they may appear to damage trees, woodpeckers are generally good for tree health because they feed so heavily on wood-boring beetles. Most woodpecker species are monogamous, and many form long-term pair bonds. The nests are usually lined with nothing but the woodchips created by excavating the nest cavity, which is excavated by both members of the pair. Both sexes incubate the eggs, with males generally taking the night shift. Both sexes also feed and tend the young.
Fairly common resident.

    General Description

    The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of Washington's woodpeckers. Its plumage is a mix of black and white (but see below.) Its wings, lower back, and tail are black with white spots; its upper back and outer tail feathers are white. Its underside is white, and its head is marked with wide alternating black and white stripes. Males have a red spot at the backs of their heads which females lack. Downy Woodpeckers closely resemble the larger Hairy Woodpeckers, but Downys have relatively smaller bills, which give their heads a rounder, 'cuter' shape. Downy Woodpeckers found in western Washington are considerably darker than their eastern Washington counterparts, with most of the areas described above as 'white' actually a dingy tan. Juveniles look like adults but may have red on their foreheads.


    Downy Woodpeckers typically inhabit broadleaved and mixed forests, especially those with black cottonwood and willow. They are also often found in residential areas, along rivers and streams, and in orchards, city parks, and even agricultural areas as long as there are sufficient trees nearby. They are sometimes found in conifer forests after the breeding season and especially in burned areas. However, Downy Woodpeckers generally prefer deciduous environments in contrast to Hairy Woodpeckers, which may often be found in coniferous forests.


    Downy Woodpeckers maintain feeding territories year round but often join winter flocks of chickadees and nuthatches. They are acrobatic foragers that can hang upside-down and reach the outermost tips of branches. Males tend to forage farther out than females, which stay closer to the trunk. Downy Woodpeckers will also forage on mullein stalks and other herbaceous vegetation, but generally they feed by exploring bark crevices.


    Insects, especially beetles and ants, are the main food of Downy Woodpeckers. They also feed on berries, seeds, and suet.


    Downy Woodpeckers form monogamous breeding pairs in late winter. Both members of the pair excavate nesting and roosting holes in soft or rotten wood. They often situate their cavity entrance in a spot surrounded by lichen or fungus, which helps to camouflage the hole. Both parents incubate the 4 to 5 eggs for about 12 days, and both feed the young. The young leave the nest after 20 to 25 days but follow the parents around for a few weeks thereafter. Each pair typically raises one brood a year.

    Migration Status

    Downy Woodpeckers are permanent residents in most areas, but the northernmost populations may move some distance south or to lower elevations in the winter. During winter, they may be found in orchards and other wooded areas where they do not breed, indicating some seasonal movement.

    Conservation Status

    Downy Woodpeckers are common and widespread throughout their range and seem to have adapted to human-inhabited areas. They can take advantage of second-growth and ornamental plantings, which has resulted in greater numbers of Downy than Hairy Woodpeckers in the Puget Trough. There are three recognized subspecies in Washington: those found in the far eastern portions of the state, those found along the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and those found in western Washington.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Downy Woodpeckers are common year round in hardwood forests at low to moderate elevations throughout most of Washington. They occur but are relatively uncommon in the Palouse area, where they are generally restricted to streamsides, and in the Columbia Basin east of the Potholes reservoir, although they are fairly common around the Tri-cities.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Puget TroughFFFFFFFFFFFF
    North CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    West CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    East CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Canadian RockiesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Blue MountainsFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Columbia PlateauFFFFFFFFFFFF

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