Bird of the Week: Downy Woodpecker

Species: Downy Woodpecker, or Dryobates pubescens

Family: Picidae (Woodpeckers)

Star sign: Capricorn

Rating: 11/10

Ideal Date: Taunting every jacked, 6’3 bro he meets for an entire night

Downy Woodpeckers are just little guys that can be found all over the continental US. And when I say they’re little, I mean it — this feathery friend is the smallest woodpecker found in North America. Their minute size not only makes them look absolutely adorable, but it also helps them to reach food that their beefier woodpecker brothers could never hope to access! Perhaps this special niche helped them secure their status as one of the most ubiquitous woodpeckers in the nation.

Although the Downy Woodpecker is special in size, its coloration is near-identical to that of another woodpecker, the larger Hairy Woodpecker. According to All About Birds, differentiating between Hairies and Downies is “one of the first identification challenges that beginning bird watchers master.” This striking similarity, of course, begs the question: why do these two dapper dudes dress the same? They aren’t nearly closely related enough to explain the resemblance, so this must be an instance of convergent evolution — though the question of why that convergent evolution occurred is still a matter of debate. According to one 2018 study from Audubon News, Downy Woodpeckers adopted the appearance of Hairy Woodpeckers to take advantage of the larger bird’s reputation among its fellow songbirds as a massive dick; the tiny fluffy Downies hope to be mistaken for the hellacious Hairies, such as to more effectively bully other birds away from food resources. As commented by one researcher in the study, “Woodpeckers tend to be more dominant than other species, just because they’re crazy.” And what better way to dominate your peers than by dressing up as the biggest, baddest bird at the feeder?

If you want to meet one of these fly friends, you’re in luck, as they can be found all over the US — including here at Reed — climbing the sides of trees, drumming on wood, and harassing everyone else at the bird feeder. Keep an eye out for a small songbird with black and white patterning; stripes on the head, a white back, a dingy tan-white belly, and black wings speckled with white spots. This friend’s tail is black in the center and white-speckled-with-black on the edges, with its feet and cute, stubby bill colored a neutral gray. The only splash of color you’ll find on a Downy Woodpecker comes from the patch of red on the back of the head of the males of the species. Overall, they’re pretty distinctive in appearance — except, of course, for the part where they have a virtually identical cousin that can also be found at Reed. To differentiate between the two, observe the beak (the Downy’s is proportionally much stubbier) and the tail (the white edges of the Downy’s are speckled whereas the Hairy’s tail is not). Remember: the Hairy Woodpecker is a big meanie, and while the Downy Woodpecker may posture like one, deep down, he’s just a little guy.

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